The State of New York and the Legal Struggle to Desegregate the American Bowling Congress, 1944-1950

By Walter, John C.; Iida, Malina | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2011 | Go to article overview

The State of New York and the Legal Struggle to Desegregate the American Bowling Congress, 1944-1950


Walter, John C., Iida, Malina, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In the years between World War I and World War II, bowling became the most popular participant sport in America, due in large part to its encouragement by the United States Armed Forces. (2) Though blacks and whites made up the largest bowling contingents, the American Bowling Congress (ABC), the sport's national organizing body since 1895, had in 1916 inserted in its constitution a "white male sex" clause, ensuring segregation in its sanctioned tournaments. (3) Forced to form their own organization, African Americans established the National Negro Bowling Association (NNBA) in 1939. (4) The sport's rise in popularity during WWII and the slightly changing racial climate, however, brought ABC's discriminatory clause to the forefront, and protests against this racist policy quickly began to emerge. (5)

As early as 1944, Roman Catholic priest Father Charles T. Carow, an ABC Executive Council member and a leader in the New York Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), feeling that the time had come to end segregation in bowling, became the first to speak out against it. (6) That same year, the United Auto Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations (UAW-CIO) made considerable attempts to rectify the ABC problem. The union adopted a resolution denouncing the ABC's bigoted policy, and it's Recreation Director Melvin West and Fair Practices Director George W. Crockett endeavored numerous times to persuade ABC officials to remove the segregation clause. (7) These early efforts by Father Carow and the UAW-CIO all suffered the same fate. Indeed, it would not be until the ABC's May 1950 convention that it capitulated, eliminating the "white male sex" provision from its constitution.

When the ABC finally yielded. The New York Times reported that there were very few nays among the organization's 518 delegates, and the motion passed with the agreement that the change would be effective August 1. At the press conference announcing this change, ABC's counsel, Michael J. Dunn, explained that the organization, being sued in New York, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, and threatened with suits in Michigan and Minnesota, had already spent $40,000 in related legal fees. Seeking to put the best face on the forced decision, Dunn informed his audience that from 1895 to 1916 there had been no white male restriction, emphasizing, "we got along fine.'" ABC Secretary Elmer H. Baumgarten, a vigorous proponent for retaining the segregationist clause, commented on the decision in equivocal terms, saying, "the vote speaks for itself." (8) Congratulations came to New York Attorney General Nathaniel L. Goldstein from all sides, and when victory dinners were planned, he along with NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and NAACP legal staff members, was feted royally. (9)

The African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, also reported the victory, though giving a much more informed and balanced historical record leading up to the successful moment, noting persons and organizations such as Father Carow; Walter Reuther and William Oliver, UAW-CIO Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department co-directors; and UAW-CIO Recreation Department Director Olga Madar. As expected, the Defender also gave credit to TNBA, (10) particularly its current president Sidney Celestine and former president Poindexter Orr. (11)

Though the ABC's 1950 capitulation seemed a significant and total New York success story to the everyday reader, it is important to demonstrate that by the time Goldstein and the NAACP appeared to have delivered the bowling congress' coup de grace, the discriminatory policy had already suffered a severe wound in Illinois, and the organization stared at a similar fate in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.

This paper briefly traces the legal development in the fight to desegregate bowling, emphasizing that the New York lawsuit did not occur spontaneously, but rather resulted from a long and arduous search for an effective means to remove the "white male sex" discriminatory clause from the ABC's constitution. …

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