[Ed. note: In 2014 the Kansas City Golf Hall of fame inducted four Black golfers who integrated the previously segregated links at Swope Park. The following remarks were delivered by Hall of fame Committee member, Don Kuehn]
A few years ago, while I was doing research for a series of articles for the centennial of the Kansas City Golf Association (which became known as “Jimmy, the caddie”), I came across an article that haunted me for several months.
In July 2005, on the eve of the USGA’s Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at Swope Memorial Golf Course, J. Brady McCollough wrote a story for the Kansas City Star that I just couldn’t shake.
Had McCollough not explored his topic with the depth he did back then and interviewed the people he did (many of whom have since died), a chapter of our history, and an important piece of civil rights history in Kansas City may have been lost forever.
I’ll mention McCollough again a bit later, but, now, I want to tell you a story. I call it “The Steepest hill in local golf.” Today we think of this tale as unbelievable; troubling in so many ways. But, in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the way it was.
From the time golf came to Kansas City in about 1894, until early 1950 there were fifty-five golf courses opened in the area (this is according to my friend, “Jimmy, the Caddie”). Nineteen of these were supposedly “open to the public.”
There was a movement around the country back then, to build municipal and public golf courses as a way to “democratize” the game, allowing poor and middle-class people an opportunity to enjoy the values of health, recreation, and camaraderie that we associate with playing golf… that is, so long as you were white.
But these same values were largely denied to men and women of color.
On an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon in March of 1950 that began to change. That was the day four very brave and very dedicated black men showed up at the pro shop counter at Swope #1 and demanded the right to play the course they had been barred from since it opened.
Golf had been played somewhere in Swope Park since the first free links opened near the front gate in 1906. James Dalgleish designed the original public course in the park in 1911. And, of course, we know that A. W. Tillinghast crafted what we now call Swope Memorial in 1934.
In all that time, no black man or woman had ever played on these so-called “public” golf courses. With one exception: because of a lawsuit brought against the city, the Central States Golf Association did, indeed, hold a tournament at #1 in 1948. The Central States was a “tour” of amateur and professional minority golfers who played throughout the Midwest on whatever courses they could find. But that aside…
There was that other course that African-Americans were “allowed” to play. It was the hardscrabble, unkempt nine-holes down the hill. Folks called it Swope #2.
In order to fully understand how deep the roots of the game had grown, I have to tell you that black golfers had been playing the game in Kansas City since the early 1920s.
Here’s the “back-story” as they say:
In 1879 a freed slave by the name of Junius Groves (photo) walked from Kentucky to Kansas City. When he got here he had virtually no money, but he found work as a sharecropper, eventually, he did save some money, bought a little land, and started growing potatoes.
By the early 1900s, he was so successful he became known as “The Potato King of the World”. He was so good at what he did, a small town grew up around his operation between Edwardsville and Bonner Springs. It was called Groves Center.
So, I guess you’re asking yourself: “Don, what do potatoes have to do with golf?”
Well, I’ll tell you. Groves built a small golf course on some of his property just for the use of his black employees. I doubt there was any other exclusively-black golf course anywhere else in the country at the time… that is, not on purpose, anyway.
So, from the dirt and dust of the potato farm, came a group of players who eventually morphed into the Heart of America Golf Club. The HOA became THE organization for minority golfers in this area.
In 1938, they sued the city and its Parks Board for the right of its members to play on the course that they were, in fact, paying for through their taxes.
Times were changing.
A few years later the US entered World War II. Thousands of black men enlisted in the armed services. Thousands of black women worked in war industries.
In 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order #9981 which abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces. Although effectuating the president’s order would take years, it proved to be the first bullet fired at “Jim Crow” in the military.
So, veterans came home and tried to rebuild their lives. But on the streets of Kansas City, like the rest of the country, it wasn’t so easy.
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey had broken the color barrier in the major leagues; Dr. Martin Luther King’s first application of non-violence was still years away; Brown v. Board of Education was not on the radar yet; Ms. Rosa Parks wouldn’t take her stand on the Montgomery bus for another five years. But golf was becoming one of the first battlegrounds in the fight for civil rights.
African-Americans fought for freedom in Europe and Asia but found little of it when they came home. The right to vote, to have access to good schools, to eat in restaurants, and to shop in stores of their choosing were denied them.
In golf, Swope #1 was like a virtual country club for middle-class whites. The A.W. Tillinghast design was about as closed to the non-white public as Kansas City Country Club or Milburn were.
Black golfers had access to the nine holes at Swope #2, but… only on Mondays and Tuesdays!
Well, on March 24, 1950, the President of the HoAGC, Mr. George Johnson – who started playing on that potato farm back in the ’20s – and three of his buddies:
Mr. Reuben Benton, a newspaperman who later became co-owner of The Call newspaper;
Mr. Sylvester “Pat” Johnson; and Mr. Leroy Doty (left) — who were also part of the Heart of America Golf Club — climbed the steepest hill in local golf: they drove up to Swope #1 and forced the issue.
According to that article written by J. Brady McCollough for the Kansas City Star (July 17, 2005):
“They drove that winding road up the hill, walked into the clubhouse, and laid their greens fees on the counter. The man behind the counter looked up, astonished. They knew what he would say.
‘You can’t play here, but you can play at course #2.’
He expected them to walk away and get back into their cars like the black men who preceded them. But not on this day. Not with the seeds of change that had been planted across the country.
The Call reported the conversation that ensued something like this: (I suspect the vernacular of the times was “sanitized” prior to publication):
Now, boys, you know you can’t play here; you’re colored fellows.
Who said we can’t?
They said it downtown.
Who said it, and why?
Can’t say who said it, but they said it, and that’s all I know.
Well, if you can’t say who said we can’t play, and if you don’t know why, then we’ll just go ahead and play and let them tell us.
They went to the first tee and hit their drives under the glare of the superintendent. Beaten, he walked back to the clubhouse.
Meanwhile, anticipating the sounds of sirens and police that never came, the four men enjoyed what would be the first of many rounds on the hallowed grounds of Swope #1.
But the white men who frequented the course weren’t about to give up their turf that easily. Incidents of broken windows and slashed tires were numerous. Some would show up in groups of five and roll dice to see who would stay behind for the first nine holes, then the high score of the other four would stand guard while the others played the back.
Others would meet at a shopping area near 47th street and take a taxi to the course.
Eventually, the city stopped maintaining the Tillinghast course as fewer and fewer white players showed up. The period of decline lasted almost 25 years. Not until Mr. Ollie Gates (an old friend of Reuben Benton’s) and head of the Parks Board, pushed for the city to back the renovation of Swope to its pre-1950s splendor did it become everybody’s golf course again.
Fifty-five years later, in 2005, the USGA conducted the Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at Swope Memorial (as it is now known). Players from all over the globe competed.
Just as the Foursome might have imagined… the doors of the course were open to all.
They called themselves “The Foursome”. And they beat Jim Crow 1-up in a classic battle that went on for years.
For their courage to defy the “Jim Crow” conventions of the times; for the example, they set for the generations who followed them to the well-maintained fairways of municipal courses all across America; for the love, they demonstrated for the game of golf against great obstacles… the Board of Directors of the Kansas City Golf Association is proud to include The Foursome: Mr. George Johnson, Mr. Reuben Benton, Mr. Sylvester Johnson, and Mr. Leroy Doty, in the 2014 class of the Kansas City Golf Hall of Fame.
 read the full McCollough article at http://www.ncaatop25.com/integration.htm
Story written by contributing writer: Don Kuehn