In the Rough

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

Johnson was ten years old when the Miami Springs course, built by developer and aviation magnate Glenn Curtiss, opened with nine holes in 1923. A year later, amid great fanfare, Abe Mitchell won the first (and whites only) Miami Open there. As a teenager at Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown, Johnson participated in numerous extracurricular activities: He served on the student council, sang in a quartet, drummed in the band, played baseball, and edited the school paper. He had no interest in golf, though.

But many young blacks, especially those across town in Coconut Grove, found work as caddies and fell in love with the sport. One of them, Joseph Delancey, was about ten years old when he began caddying at the Biltmore Country Club in Coral Gables in the late Twenties. He carried clubs for a white man named Joe Roach, a Coral Gables

resident who employed the boy's aunt as a maid. Now age 81 and widely known by his nickname, Roach (after the man he caddied for), Delancey also remembers caddying at the private Miami Country Club, located northwest of downtown, near the present site of Jackson Memorial Hospital. He recalls that Ku Klux Klan members would sometimes steal on to the club's fairways and hold their nighttime initiation ceremonies, replete with burning crosses.

At an Overtown meeting in 1950, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall met with Johnson (behind desk) and Graves (right). Garth Reeves observed
photo courtesy John Johnson
At an Overtown meeting in 1950, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall met with Johnson (behind desk) and Graves (right). Garth Reeves observed
Retired judge John Johnson, who never took up golf, recently returned to the Miami Springs course he helped liberate
Steve Satterwhite
Retired judge John Johnson, who never took up golf, recently returned to the Miami Springs course he helped liberate

By the time Delancey reached his teens, he was hooked on golf and played at the Miami Country Club, where black caddies were allowed to tee off on Mondays, when the course was closed for maintenance. Developer Hawley Russell also allowed caddies to play a few times a week at the Riviera, a private nine-hole course he created when the Biltmore sold half of its 36-hole complex during the Great Depression. "The way [Russell] used to save money is, he'd let the caddies take care of the golf course," Delancey remembers, "and they'd rake the traps and cut around the greens, do whatever. And then they'd get a chance to play. So he didn't have to pay them."

Some kids found other places to whack away. Sidney Wynn, who began caddying at age ten on the Biltmore and Miami Springs courses in the mid-Thirties, remembers teeing off on a grassy playground (known today as Armbrister Park) near Carver High School on Grand Avenue in the Grove. "We didn't have but one club, maybe two or three balls," recalls Wynn, a 75-year-old retired director of Arcola Lakes Park.

But for the most part, blacks couldn't golf at the area's four public courses, including Miami Springs. "It's something you wanted to do, but with the trends of the time, you just went along with the program," says Delancey.

Of course fairways weren't the only locales forbidden to blacks. Beginning in the Twenties, it was illegal for them to travel in much of Dade County without a pass from an employer. Laws also barred blacks from the beaches and many stores, restaurants, nightclubs, and other establishments. So in 1938, when he was just sixteen, Delancey headed north, yearning for adventure and freedom from segregation. (That same year, at Miami Springs, Sam Snead won the all-white Miami Open, the predecessor of the Doral-Ryder Open.) The teenager moved to Mamaroneck, New York, and found work caddying at Winged Foot Golf Club in wealthy Westchester County.

"It was the same thing you was doing here; only thing, it was more liberal. You could play golf up there at a golf course," he explains. "Here you couldn't play." After work he and other black caddies would head out to the municipal courses, where green fees cost 75 cents.

John Johnson, who spent much of the Thirties teaching at Goulds Junior High School in South Dade, also went north. After a failed attempt to find work at a Ford factory in Detroit in 1939, he applied to Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., and enrolled in 1940. He paid the bills by working as a statistical analyst at the Pentagon during World War II and, in 1943, married his college sweetheart, Johnalie Dennis. And he met Grattan Graves, a classmate at Howard, who was born in southern Virginia and raised in D.C.

At the urging of NAACP directors, Graves moved to Miami in 1946, intent on combatting the city's segregation laws. Johnson and his wife followed a year later. The lawyers set up separate practices in offices in an Overtown building where Johnson's brother, Samuel, operated a radiology clinic. In 1947 Graves and Johnson joined forces and threatened to sue the city unless blacks were allowed to attend the Orange Bowl. City officials obliged by erecting a segregated set of bleachers. The following year Graves challenged a city plan to relocate hundreds of black residents from Overtown to make way for white-owned downtown businesses. This time he lost, but the lawyers moved on to other battles. "He was a very hard worker, conscientious worker ... very brilliant," Johnson says of Graves, who died in 1992 at age 72. "If he knew that the law was behind him, he didn't mind letting you know."

Soon, at the prompting of Joseph Rice, they were letting Hunk Arnold know they had no qualms about going to court against his segregated golf course. Sidney Wynn, among other blacks, was pleased to see the agitation. He'd returned to caddying after two and a half years in the U.S. Army during World War II. His game had improved dramatically during his military tour; he had golfed often while stationed in England and California, and he was itching to play.

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