Race Relations and the Sport of Golf: The African American Golf Legacy

Article excerpt


Sports are often depicted as being among the most "open" arenas in race relations. However, sports have reflected the historical racial trends in the larger American society, characterized by discrimination and efforts by minorities to overcome racism (Dawkins & Kinloch, 2000; Gilmore, 1995; Sammons, 1994; Braddock, 1989; Ashe, 1988; Wiggins, 1983). The history of race relations in sports mirrors the progression of relations between majority and minority populations, generally. In the case of the white majority and black minority populations in America, these historical stages range from exploitation or exclusion of African American slaves from participation in white-controlled sports during the plantation era, through the post-slavery period of segregation and discrimination in most sport activities, and, finally, to limited desegregation with continuing resistance by the white majority. In response to racism, African Americans formed their own organizations or "parallel structures" in such sports as baseball and basketball to World War II. The desegregation of race relations in sports began to accelerate after World War II in the major sports of baseball, basketball and football, but not in the case of golf. While white resistance to the integration of blacks into all the major sports continued after initial desegregation efforts, nowhere was this resistance more complete than in golf, where the maintenance of a system of overt and institutional racism prevailed for many decades after initial racial barriers were removed (Dawkins & Kinloch, 2000).

Recent interest in the historical background of African Americans in golf has been stimulated by the phenomenal success of Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, currently the only golfer of African American ancestry playing on the regular Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour. Despite the longstanding perception that African Americans have not been interested in golf historically, Tiger Woods' multi-ethnic background has stimulated both efforts to attract more minority youth to golf and discussions of the past experiences of African Africans in the sport. However, the legacy of African Americans in golf, especially prior to some racial breakthroughs in the sport during the civil rights movement, has been less well documented. While earlier literature indicates that there was significant participation of African Americans in golf before the modern civil rights period (Ashe, 1988), much of the recent documentation of their experiences has appeared since the rise to prominence of Tiger Woods (McDaniel, 2000; Dawkins & Kinloch, 2000; Kennedy, 2000: Sinnette, 1998: Dawkins, 1996). This literature reveals that despite discrimination faced by black athletes throughout the history of sports in America, there was a significant presence of African Americans in golf and other major sports long before desegregation battles broke down racial barriers to black participation. In this paper, I examine the response by African Americans to exclusion from mainstream golf activities controlled by whites, their development of activities and organizations in golf, and the production of many star performers during the Jim Crow era. Finally, I argue that current opportunities for greater inclusion of African Americans will be enhanced by formally recognizing the "African American golf legacy" and the role it serves in stimulating a sense of historical awareness, continuity and pride among the thousands of African American youth who will be attracted to golf in the Twenty-First Century.

The Development of Black Golf in America

The long struggle to gain access to white elite-controlled sports is part of the historical struggle of blacks to overcome racial discrimination in America, generally. Golf was the last major sport to remove formal racial barriers to black participation at the professional level, which, along with other factors, has resulted in a slow pace toward significant African American presence in professional golf. …