KC Filmmakers Tee Up Documentary on Black Golfers

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Image credit above: George and Sylvester “Pat” Johnson, Reuben Benton and Leroy Doty became known as “The Foursome”.

In March 1950, four black men placed their fees on the counter at the whites-only Swope Memorial Golf Course and went off to play.

Flat tires, shattered windows and a decade-long battle to assert the right to equal play on Kansas City golf courses ensued.

These four men, George and Sylvester “Pat” Johnson, Reuben Benton and Leroy Doty, became known as “The Foursome”. In 2014, their act of civil disobedience earned them a place in the Kansas City Golf Hall of Fame.

It’s one of many stories that will be explored in an upcoming documentary on the history of black golfers by the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City and local production company Reel Images.

Reel Images is owned and operated by filmmakers and childhood friends Rodney Thompson and Stinson McClendon.

“For me, their pushback was monumental in the history of desegregation in Kansas City,” Thompson said. “It speaks to our tenacity as African Americans that we don’t take no for an answer.”

Thompson also noted that the event of pushing back against racism in public spaces is bigger than Kansas City — it’s an American story.

Local black golfers played on a course near Edwardsville that farmer Junius George Groves (known as the “Potato King of the World”) dug on his land. (Courtesy | Kansas Historical Society)

The famous Foursome golf game took place four years before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. De jure segregation still reigned in Kansas City, and the documentary will explore its impacts on the golf course both locally and nationally.

The golf craze in Kansas City was in full swing in the 1920s. At the time, black golfers played at a course near Edwardsville that farmer Junius George Groves (known as the “King of the Apple earth of the world”) dug on his land.

Black Archives ombudsman and documentary co-producer James Watts kindly described the course as “rustic”.

From this golf course was born the Heart of America Golf Club, an association of black golfers.

Around the same time, the United Golfers Association was founded by a group of black businessmen who wanted to open up the game to black Americans. UGA has held golf tournaments in cities across the country, including Kansas City.

“A golf tournament was similar to an HBCU homecoming,” Watts said.

UGA tournaments tended to attract big names like boxer Joe Louis and jazz legend Count Basie, and were enjoyed by more than just men.

“When you go into the story, a lot of women were fed up with their husbands being away all the time and wanted to see what they were up to,” Watts said.

Despite the growing scene for black golfers, records show players suffered from segregation in more ways than one.

In the 1930s, some black men could play the small Swope Park golf course, but only on Mondays and Tuesdays. In 1938, the Heart of America Golf Club sued the city for the right to play on tax-funded golf courses.

The clubhouse at Swope Park Golf Course No. 2.
The clubhouse at Swope Park Golf Course No. 2. (Photo | The Kansas City Star)

Records from the time also showed that black golfers in Kansas City were beaten in local tournaments due to their lack of opportunities to practice on adequate courses.

Those who were good enough to succeed in tournaments knew their careers couldn’t go far.

“I think it was very rewarding but painful,” Watts said. “The reward was winning, but the pain was knowing you could win a tour on UGA but not play in the PGA”

The Professional Golfers’ Association of America removed the “Caucasian only” clause from its bylaws in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Althea Gibson became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1963. The following year , Pete Brown has become the first African-American to win an official PGA Tour event.

Some people believe that the integration or rise of Tiger Woods marked the end of racism in golf, but insiders know that is not the case. According to Watts and many others, it is still very difficult for black people to break into golf.

“You need a sponsor,” he said. “It’s more than being good.”

Legendary black golfer Charlie Sifford.
In this Nov. 11, 1957, file photo, Charlie Sifford practices at the Western Avenue golf course in Los Angeles. Sifford has won the UGA National Open six times and has two PGA Tour victories. (AP Photo | Harold P. Matosian, File)

Skyrocketing start-up costs and ongoing racism still make the sport difficult, but Thompson hopes the film will inspire young black people to make their mark.

“It is relevant today for young people to build on the foundations that these people presented to us,” he said. “They showed us how to push back.”

The film’s title has not been announced, but Watts is considering “The 19th Hole.”

“The 19th hole was the parking lot under a shady tree with a beer because they weren’t allowed in the club,” Watts said.

Interviews for the documentary began recently, and a release date is yet to be determined.

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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