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Equality in Golf

Dermot Gilleece remembers Bill Powell, the pioneer of equal rights in golf

Posted Jul 30, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

bill powell

These two weeks at Firestone and the PGA Championship, bring to mind one of the most remarkable families in the history of American golf, and what they did to promote the game among minorities.  As it happened, I had the privilege to see the head of the family, William Powell, in the flesh in 2009, during the week of the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National.  

Nine years previously, I talked with his daughter, Renee, during the Bridgestone (NEC) Invitational at Firestone.  That was when she told me about Clearview, a beautifully-manicured public course about 13 miles away in East Canton, where the weekday green-fee at that time was a modest $25.

In August 2009, her 92-year-old father sat in a leather armchair with a folder in his hands on the stage of the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis, a stranger to celebrity.  In a strong, steady voice, he proceeded to read us his life story - an extraordinary account of courage and indomitable will in the face of racial prejudice from golf and government.

On a stool beside him in a typically supportive role, was Renee.  The hurt in her eyes during that meeting I had with her, remained a vivid memory. "They called it the Nigger Nine," she had told me.  "Indeed some of them still do, despite the fact that we extended to 18 holes in 1978."  She was talking about the public golf course her father built in 1946 and which remains the only course to have been designed, built and owned by a black man.

With its wonderful way of healing its own, cruel wounds, Powell's country were making amends with the presentation of the Distinguished Service Award by the PGA of America.  As their highest honour, it placed him alongside such legendary figures as Byron Nelson, Petty Berg, Jack Nicklaus, Mark McCormack and Pete Dye.

During a deeply moving ceremony, visual tributes included one from Tiger Woods and congratulatory letters were read from two US Presidents, George Bush Snr and the current incumbent, Barack Obama.  Powell smiled through it all before expressing his sincere thanks, without the slightest hint of rancour.  He had won his battle and this was a night for the gracious acceptance of amends.

Then, as a further gesture, the PGA of America bestowed posthumous membership upon three African-American golf pioneers, Ted Rhodes, John Shippen and Bill Spiller, who were denied the opportunity of becoming PGA members during their professional careers.  Posthumous honorary membership was also granted to Joe Louis Barrow Snr, better known as Joe Louis, the legendary world heavyweight boxing champion who became an advocate for diversity in golf.

After Powell had retired as a sergeant from the US military in the wake of World War II, he returned to his home in Ohio and discovered that the harsh realities of golfing life for the black community there, hadn't changed.  So, he set about following his dream, only to be confronted by a further problem.  Believing there would be no difficulty in acquiring a GI loan for a returning soldier who was prepared to die for his country, he went from bank to bank, only to be informed that there was no such thing.  The upshot was that with the support of two, black-doctor friends and his brother, Berry, he raised enough money to buy a 78-acre farm in East Canton.

Pulling up fence-posts by hand, he also cleared away stones by hand and got two neighbouring farmers to help him with the ploughing.  And all this while continuing to work in a local factory from three in the afternoon until 11 at night.  Which amounted to 18-hour days, seven days a week.

"I sat down and drew the first nine holes," he recalled. "I worked everything from scale.  With overlay graph-paper, I used each square as a yard.  Besides making the holes interesting and challenging, I was also determined to spare as many trees as possible.  In fact we finished up planting a further 200 trees at Clearview, over the years.   

As Renee pointed out, change remained painfully slow, so slow in fact that she is still the only black American to be a member of both the LPGA and the PGA of America.  She talked about the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America having 16,000 members, of whom only 29 were black.  

In a moving conclusion to a book about Clearview, Powell wrote: "My story is now yours. My soul is now unbound.  May the struggle and triumph of my life wrap itself around you with a healing and understanding that sends the message to forgive and move on."  He concluded:  "Write on your heart that hope triumphs over bitterness, and love conquers hate."

William Powell went on to celebrate his 93rd birthday on November 22nd 2009, and then lived out the remainder of a year that had brought him so much distinction.  He died on December 31st and his glowing legacy continues to prompt marvellous memories, especially at this time.

- Dermot Gilleece

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