Black History Month has always had a purpose—to highlight things African Americans have done for the Country and things the Country has done to African Americans.
But we may not be accomplishing that purpose nowadays. Instead, we emphasize Black culture—eating, singing, and dancing—but not Black history.
I was reminded of that point as I watched the telecast of the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) golf tournament a few days ago. This tour is an effort to assist minority golfers, especially African Americans, in potentially developing their games to reach the PGA Tour.
I do not condemn this effort; however, I wonder how many people pushing and applauding it realize how involved African Americans have been in golf at the highest levels—long ago. Like many other events in American history, African Americans were there at the beginning of golf in the United States.
First off, please note that the first American-born golf teaching professional was an African American, John Shippen. Before Shippen, head golf professionals were imported or borrowed from Scotland, where the game had originated many years earlier.
Shippen grew up near where Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was built on Long Island. The course was finished in 1894 by a Scotsman golf professional, Willie Dunn, who used local laborers. John Shippen and his Native American friend, Oscar Bunn, were among the young people who worked to clear the land and construct the course.
Dunn also taught them to caddie. As a result, Shippen became thoroughly captivated by the game and became quite good at it. He became Dunn’s assistant—repairing clubs, running tournaments, and serving on the maintenance crew. In that role, Shippen gave lessons to club members. Thus, he was the first American-born golf professional.
The United States Golf Association held its second U.S. Open tournament at Shinnecock Hills in 1896. Despite protestations from some White players, Shippen and his buddy, Oscar Bunn, entered and played. After the first round, Shippen tied for the lead. However, he had a problem on one hole in the last round and ended up in fifth place, ahead of Willie Dunn and many others.
In 1897, 18-year-old Shippen became the first head professional at a new club, Maidstone. After serving as head professional at Maidstone for two years, he went to Aronomink Golf Club near Philadelphia and took along his brother as his assistant. In 1999, they both played in the U.S. Open, held in Baltimore.
In 1902, Shippen returned to Maidstone and served as its head professional until 1913. His brother Cyrus, who had graduated from Yale, went on to a teaching career in Washington, D.C.
Interestingly, Shippen was a professional at three of the most prestigious clubs in the Hamptons.
Shippen outplayed some of the great golfers of his day, and he also taught them. For example, Walter J. Travis, the Australian-born amateur who won the 1904 British Amateur, lived on Long Island and would come to Shippen for an occasional lesson.
Native American Oscar Bunn also became a head golf professional at a couple of courses.
In another Black development in golf in the 1890s, prominent Boston dentist Dr. George Grant invented the golf tee. Before that invention, boxes of dirt would be placed on the teeing area for golfers to use to make their tees.
But as racial things happen in America, Jim Crow laws hardened just as being a head golf professional at a country club became more prestigious. White golf professionals recognized this good thing and quickly organized the Professional Golf Association (PGA) in 1916 and excluded Blacks. They did not end this exclusion until 1961.
Shippen eventually lost his positions in the White golf world and moved to the Black-owned Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J., where he remained for 32 years, before his retirement and death at 89 years of age.
In 1922, Joseph Bartholomew began his career as a golf course architect. After he continued to play and beat all comers, including some international stars, a group of wealthy White men funded him to go to New York and learn to build golf courses.
Back home, working alone in an isolated area to hide his craft, Bartholomew built the elite Metairie golf course, a course on which he could not play or practice.
Bartholomew went on to develop other courses in New Orleans, which he also could not play. One or two of the public courses he built are now named after him.
I hope this Black History Month story paints a different picture than might be presumed when looking at the APGA tournament. Yes, Blacks and other minorities aspiring to be professional golfers need help, but exactly what caused them to need help?