In the Rough

A half-century before the Tiger Woods era, black Miamians fought a losing battle to hit the links

A round of golf is usually just a round of golf. Of course a guy like Tiger Woods can make a lot of money at it. But for most players it's just a pleasant, if rather expensive, pastime. Once in a great while, though, a game of golf becomes an act of rebellion, so much so that it even catches the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. Take, for instance, the morning of Monday, April 12, 1949. Seven men drove to the eighteen-hole Miami Springs Country Club, then owned by the City of Miami, and strode into the clubhouse. It was a perfect day, and they were eager to walk the links. Some in the group had spent most of the previous week working as caddies around town and were eager for the chance to play. But on this day, there would be no teeing off for them. Negroes weren't allowed on the course. And all seven, including the two lawyers, were black.

They had expected some kind of rebuff. The trip to the club was, in fact, a well-planned challenge to Miami's segregation laws. The men insisted on speaking to the course superintendent, a thin white sexagenarian and retired police officer named H.H. "Hunk" Arnold. He invited them into his office, and they sat down to talk. Arnold said he understood their disappointment about the rule that excluded blacks and that he wasn't responsible for it, but the law was the law. So Joseph Rice, a caddie by profession, informed the course superintendent that two of his companions were attorneys. If the group couldn't play golf, they just might have to sue.

Arnold asked the men to wait while he left the room and placed a call to Miami City Attorney John Watson, Jr. When he returned he told Rice and his golf party that they were indeed free to play. He called over to the starter's shack near the first tee and instructed the attendant to let the group through. But when the men arrived at the shack window, the starter informed them they couldn't play after all. They were, he said, in violation of another course rule. Each player must have his own bag of clubs. The group had only one set, which they'd planned to share. They told the employee they'd come back the next day and headed home, chiding themselves for not foreseeing this hitch.

PGA officials barred Los Angeles-based golfer Bill Spiller from the 1952 San Diego Open for one reason: He wasn't white
Bettman Archives
PGA officials barred Los Angeles-based golfer Bill Spiller from the 1952 San Diego Open for one reason: He wasn't white

The next day Rice and several of his friends returned and played. John Johnson and Grattan Graves, the two lawyers, missed out on the game. They were back at work in their Overtown offices. Blacks were on the course every day that week: six on Wednesday, twelve on Thursday, fifty-two on Friday. (They also were requesting tee times at Bayshore Golf Course, operated by the City of Miami Beach, but were refused admission there.) Chalk up a victory for civil rights several years before the bus boycotts, lunch-counter protests, and school battles of the Fifties sparked a national movement against segregation. But not so fast. The following week Arnold delivered a piece of bad news: The municipal rules had changed again. Negroes could play, but only on Mondays. So on Tuesday the black golfers returned to the course, and the superintendent turned them away.

The controversy caught the attention of the local press. In an April 20, 1949, story in the Miami News, Arnold said he might cut the Negroes' one day to a half-day if they failed to turn out sufficiently to make up for the club's loss in revenue. Since Negroes had begun to play at the course, he claimed, the number of white golfers had dropped 50 percent.

"The city officials just changed their minds," says Johnson, now 86 years old. "Without consulting with these individuals who were out there seeking admission, they decided that one day was enough." But one day a week was not enough for Rice and other black golfers, especially because they, like all Miamians, paid taxes to maintain the city-owned course. Thus was born Rice v. Arnold.

Black Americans became involved in golf soon after the Scottish sport took root in the United States in the late 1800s. In Southampton, Long Island, in 1891, for example, a young boy named John Shippen worked with other black and Native American construction workers to help build one of the nation's first golf courses, Shinnecock Hills. Shippen was later hired as a caddie and learned to play. Just sixteen years old in 1896, the teenager created a stir among pro-segregation whites when he entered the second U.S. Open, which was held at Shinnecock. He tied for fifth place. Three years later a black dentist named George Grant patented the first wooden tee.

During the early decades of the Twentieth Century, mostly in Northern states after World War I, growing numbers of blacks showed up at public courses, often facing restrictions. But across the South, including Dade County, blacks were allowed on courses only as caddies or maintenance workers.

As a young man, John Johnson, who later would file Joseph Rice's lawsuit against the Miami Springs public golf course, had no interest in the sport. "It was a white man's game back then," he recalls. And more often than not, a wealthy white man's game. Johnson's parents, who migrated from the Bahamas to Key West just before 1900 and moved to Colored Town (later called Overtown) in 1903, were neither rich nor white. Nonetheless they were familiar with life in high society's margins. His mother worked as a maid. His father had worked as a construction worker in the Twenties at James Deering's Vizcaya estate and a maintenance man at William Jennings Bryan's Villa Serena on Brickell Avenue. John, his three brothers, and his father were among the first blacks to deliver papers for the Miami Herald.

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