In the Rough

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


Throughout the South in the Forties, it was par for the course for white men like Arnold to keep blacks off the public links, not to mention out of segregated schools, stores, and restaurants. But it was still uncommon for black men in Dade County to sue over such matters. A week after the Tuesday snubbing at the Miami Springs golf course, Graves and Johnson took up the cause of Joseph Rice in Dade County Circuit Court. In their complaint dated April 27, 1949, they argued that their client had a right to use the course whenever it was open to the public. The presiding judge was Charles Carroll, a Harvard Law School graduate, World War I pilot, and former Coast Guard legal officer. He ordered Miami City Attorney John Watson, Jr., who represented Arnold, to allow Rice to play "during all of the hours in which the said course is open to the public," or to show cause why not. Watson submitted an argument several days later, maintaining that integration of the golf course would result in a revenue drop since many white players would stop playing there. Indeed many had already gone to other courses, he claimed.

The lawyers returned to court for the final ruling a few weeks later. Judge Carroll accepted the city's argument and backed the one-day-for-blacks rule.

Golf pro Joe Delancey, better known as Joe Roach, tolerated New York winters and racist rules on his way to becoming a local legend on the links
Steve Satterwhite
Golf pro Joe Delancey, better known as Joe Roach, tolerated New York winters and racist rules on his way to becoming a local legend on the links
Sidney Wynn and his Miami Golf Connection crew contemplate a fairway at Miami Springs
Steve Satterwhite
Sidney Wynn and his Miami Golf Connection crew contemplate a fairway at Miami Springs

Ignoring death threats phoned to their offices and homes, Graves and Johnson pressed on to meet the deadline for an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. "We didn't have secretaries," he sighs. "We worked all day one Saturday until about ten o'clock that night. Then we came back the next morning and worked until about three o'clock in the afternoon." The main post office at First Street and Third Avenue was open until 4:00 p.m. on Sundays back then, and they raced over and sent their briefs off to Tallahassee.

Several months later, with money donated by outraged blacks, Johnson, Graves, and Rice took the train to the state capitol for a hearing before the Florida Supreme Court. "I'll never forget when I got up," recalls Johnson. "Supreme Court Justice Alto Adams, who later ran for governor, put this question to me. He said, 'Now, sir, the City of Miami has come forth with this argument that if blacks were allowed to use the course at all times, just like anyone else, they would lose green fees. What do you have to say about that?' And I said, 'Your Honor, it all depends what we are interested in. Now if we are interested in filling the coffers of the City of Miami, it probably has some merit. But on the other hand, if we are interested in recognizing and doing something about the relative rights of all the citizens, they don't have any argument.'"

On March 24, 1950, the justices upheld the Dade court's decision. "It is argued that the adopted rule avoids a clash of the two races," wrote Justice Roy Chapman. "It appears that if the Negroes are permitted the use of the course with the white golfers, then the white golfers will not patronize the course. The green fees paid by the Negro golfers are insufficient to support and maintain the course." The justice concluded, "It does not appear by the record that one-day allotment of the facilities of the course to the Negroes discriminated against the Negro race.... If an increased demand on the part of the Negro golfers is made to appear, then more than one day each week will be allotted."

Johnson and Graves concluded they'd made a tactical error by suing in state court. "After we thought about it some days later, we realized we should have gone into federal court because in federal court, judges are appointed for life," he says. "They would have been much more liberal, I'm sure, in their ruling because they wouldn't have to worry about an electorate and such."

It looked as though their efforts to liberate Miami Springs Country Club were doomed. But word of Rice v. Arnold had made its way to New York City, to the desk of the special counsel of the NAACP, 42-year-old Thurgood Marshall, who would be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. "The NAACP knew about this case," says Johnson. "It was a novelty because we hadn't had a case like this against a municipality or state, insofar as recreation and sports are concerned."

Graves and Johnson had never met Marshall, but within weeks he was sitting in front of them at the Overtown offices, and they were briefing him on the case. "Thurg was very calm," Johnson remembers. "He was a very matter-of-fact individual because he knew exactly what he was doing before the courts. He was cool, calm, and collected. He was all of that."

With Marshall's encouragement the Miami lawyers filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court. Again they raised donations to help pay for 50 copies of their brief, which were required by the high court. Neither Graves nor Johnson was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar and therefore neither was authorized to argue before it. A 32-year-old NAACP lawyer, Franklin Williams, a native of Queens, New York, who had studied law at Fordham University, would appear on behalf of Joseph Rice. (Williams, who died in 1990, was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana in the Sixties.)

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