Sometime after Augusta National, the home of the Masters, became one of the most famous golf courses in the world, it was suggested that a statue of its founder, Bobby Jones, be erected in a prominent place on its grounds. Jones quickly shot down the idea, saying that the course itself was memorial enough.
There is a statue of Jones at the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in Augusta—it’s larger than life size and shows Jones on his follow-through after having just swung a club—but there were no reports of any defacement during last year’s period of racial unrest when monuments of prominent figures were being destroyed and disfigured. Civil War generals and politicians, it appears, are one thing. Bobby Jones is something else.
During his lifetime, Jones was so much a symbol of how much of the South likes to see itself—gracious, courtly, eloquent—that at times it hardly seemed to matter that he ranks high among the greatest golfers who ever lived, or that he was as much a national icon during the Golden Age of Sport in the 1920s as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, and the rest.
“He was the first international figure to represent the South since Robert E. Lee,” Dr. Catherine Lewis, the curator of a permanent exhibit devoted to Jones at the Atlanta History Center, told me. “Yet his reputation was built not on defeat, but instead on character, cordiality and intelligence.”
Nor is there any no dispute over the regard in which Jones was held by the Black people he knew. Without exception, they viewed him with respect and admiration. From Camilla, the Black maid of his childhood days, to Woodrow Bryant, a caddy and club maker at East Lake—the course where Jones learned to play golf—who enjoyed a special bond with the legendary golfer, Jones’s behavior was as courteous and polite as it was with everyone else he encountered. The Black men who caddied for Jones, who waited on him, who chauffeured him, and who, in his final years of painful physical decline, attended to his personal needs, all remembered him as kind, generous, and intolerant of any cruelty toward them.
Seth Ray, a New York investment banker, whose grandfather, T.J. Ray, worked at East Lake for many years, told me several typical stories.
For all his public reticence, Jones was very much involved in the politics of his time.
“Mr. Jones took him under his wing,” Ray said of his grandfather, who began in the East Lake clubhouse as a teenager, and later became Jones’ caddy and chauffeur. “He told me once he was in the clubhouse shining shoes, when a man spat on him and called him a name. Mr. Jones heard it and became extremely angry. He really dressed the man down and said, ‘you will not speak to my caddy in that manner.’”
T.J. Ray also told of an incident during Jones’s triumphant stopover in New York in 1930 after sailing home from England following his victories in the British Amateur and Open, the first two legs of his legendary Grand Slam. Jones had sent word asking that Ray be included in a contingent that took the train up from Atlanta on the “Bobby Jones Special” and, after a ticker tape parade up Broadway, Ray appeared on a platform with the rest of the party.
“During the celebration, Mr. Jones was introducing people,” Seth Ray said. “He said, ‘One of my young caddies is here,’ and pointed to my grandfather. There was booing in the audience. He said, ‘Don’t you boo T.J. He’s part of my family.’” T.J. Ray told his grandson to make sure the story was never forgotten.
But for all his personal courtesies, Jones was very much a man of his time and place, which meant that there was never any question of his engaging in the struggle for civil rights and equal access, either in society at large or the one place where his voice would have made a powerful difference—the golf course.
For all his public reticence, Jones was very much involved in the politics of his time. In large part, Jones’s activism was due to his friendship with Dwight D. Eisenhower, a frequent visitor to Augusta National during his presidency. But beyond his affection for Eisenhower, and his stated desire to build a viable Republican party in what was then the traditionally Democratic “Solid South,” Jones had definite political views, which he was not shy about expressing.
He wrote his Congressman, James C. Davis, several times, once in support of Eisenhower’s concerns over a cut in the defense budget, and again in approval of Jones’s opposition to President John F. Kennedy’s proposal to form the Peace Corps. “We should be grateful even for small success in delaying the march of the new frontier,” Jones wrote. He also wrote to oppose the King-Anderson bill, a 1964 precursor to Medicare, and in 1969, he sent a personal letter to Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge about pending tax legislation he claimed would cost him $100,000.
Other letters from Jones to Talmadge, and to Georgia’s other senator, Richard Russell, can be seen as expressions of personal friendship—and, in Talmadge’s case, of the fact that he relied heavily on Jones’s law partner, Arthur Howell, for advice on tax legislation,
“You can be very sure of the enthusiastic support… in any race you may have for the United States Senate,” Jones assured Russell in 1965, after the senator wrote him about “completely false rumors” he was thinking of stepping down. “You will hear from me again as soon as I learn you have opposition.”
“I haven’t got much money these days, and I am hoping you won’t need much in the coming election,” Jones wrote to Talmadge in 1968, “but I do want to send you the enclosed as a token of my support and friendship. We very much need you in the United States Senate.”
In none in these letters, however, did Jones mention Russell’s and Talmadge’s defiant opposition to court-ordered desegregation. For all of his interest in politics, in fact, Jones never addressed himself to the central domestic issue of the time. Nowhere in his copious correspondence, which fills some 30 binders the size of telephone books at the U.S. Golf Association’s headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., or in the memory of those who knew him, does the subject of race arise.
“My office adjoined his for 10 years,” Howell told me, “and I can’t remember any discussion of race with Bob. If somebody asked me where he was on all this, I’d tell you I don’t know. I don’t think he ever discussed it with anybody.”
“None of my research shows that he ever said or did anything,” Catherine Lewis said. “With all the folks who write about Jones, and all the resources we share, you’d think there would be something, and there’s not. That’s sort of stunning.”
Nor, as far as it can be determined, did any of Jones’s many friends ever ask him about his views on race or social justice. “I could have asked,” said Frank Hannigan, who was a U.S. Golf Association official for 28 years before becoming an advisor and commentator on ABC’s golf telecasts. “I knew a lot of Augusta National members and they’d invite me into the clubhouse, and we’d sit around and talk. I knew Jones’s son and daughter-in-law very well. I could have asked them, but I never did. I regret it.”
“There was a kind of deference to public figures that we don’t hold today,” Lewis said, explaining why Jones was never asked for his opinion about racial matters, particularly as they related to golf. It was a deference Jones enjoyed all his life.
The long struggle to integrate the Masters might have drawn Jones’s views on race into public view, but he had long since ceded control of the tournament to Clifford Roberts, a New York businessman who had built the tournament into a force of nature. Jones’s natural reserve and declining health pushed him more and more into the background during this period. Except for annual pilgrimages to his cottage on the course by old friends, and his appearance at the awards ceremony when the tournament ended, he was seldom seen or heard from.
Roberts, on the other hand, bore the brunt of the debate over whether the Masters should admit black players—and he loved every minute of it. Whether or not it is true, as charged by Charlie Sifford, the top black professional golfer in the country in the 1950s and 60s, that Roberts once said, “As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters beside black caddies and white players,” his conduct spoke volumes.
Charlie Harrison, an amateur golfer from Atlanta who played in two Masters, remembers an information packet each player received when he registered in 1973. “The first thing in it was a telegram Masters officials had received from members of Congress stating that all professional sports had been integrated and it was time for the Masters to do the same,” Harrison told me. Also included was Roberts’ response, in which he took great pride. “He said something like, ‘Gentlemen, you do me great honor taking your valuable time away from running the country to try to help me run my golf tournament.’”
The closest Jones came to becoming involved in this controversy was in a series of private letters to Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, who had taken up Sifford’s cause in a series of caustic columns, one of which called the Professional Golf Association “the recreational arm of the Ku Klux Klan.” Ignoring Murray’s invective, Jones’s letter quoted the rules for admission to the Masters, pointing out there was nothing in them barring Sifford from the tournament. He was following the progress of Sifford toward qualification, Jones said, and he hoped he would qualify “so that we may have the question disposed of on the basis of performance.” But the tournament could not “invite a man simply because he is black.”
Jones’s reticence came to bear in other disputes that were ultimately more important, and more frustrating, than the public battle over integrating the Masters. One of them involved a public course in Atlanta that bore his name, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The other resulted in a blot on the record of the golf course he knew best.
Jones had been pleased when, on December 30, 1933, Atlanta named its new municipal course after him. When a thousand people, wearing heavy coats and mufflers to ward off the winter cold, showed up at the inauguration ceremonies, he played a full 18 holes in a biting wind. Making some excellent shots, and sinking every putt, he shot a 67. “I spent a very enjoyable afternoon,” Jones said, “and the course is a tribute to the efforts of those responsible for its creation. I am sure that it will prove popular with golfers.”
There was no question of any Black Atlantans playing the Jones municipal course at that time, of course. Just as they were not welcome at any of the city’s 62 tennis courts, 12 baseball diamonds, seven football fields, and one indoor basketball court, they were not allowed on any of its seven golf courses. Unless, as Pete McDaniel noted in Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf, they were carrying a white man’s bag.
The one course that did welcome Atlanta’s Black golfers was the Lincoln Country Club, which was founded in 1927 and quickly became a popular place to see and be seen in the African-American community. The price was right―a membership cost only $12―the food was good, and the camaraderie at the bar lively. The presence of slot machines, and the fact that, in contrast to many white country clubs, women were admitted as members, added to Lincoln’s popularity. Social memberships for those who did not care for golf sold for six dollars. “If you weren’t seen at Lincoln on the weekends, you weren’t part of the in-crowd,” Charles T. Bell, whose family owned a real estate firm in the Black community, told McDaniel.
The only drawback to Lincoln was the quality of the golf it afforded. A nine-hole course with a cement block clubhouse and no holes longer than 300 yards, it was poorly maintained, and frustrating to players with any real ability. “Most of us were former caddies, so we knew how a golf course should look,” Bell said.
Over the years, some of the club’s more serious golfers made attempts to improve the course, but they all failed. After a particularly bitter argument over the installation of an irrigation system in 1951, one of the dissidents, Hamilton Holmes, a physician who had played on an all-Black golf circuit and won a National Negro Seniors title, was asked to resign his position as a director of the club. Along with Bell, and his sons Oliver and Alfred, Holmes met with a score of other dissatisfied golfers to vent their frustrations.
At one of these gatherings, Alfred Holmes said the fateful words, “To hell with trying to get them to fix up Lincoln. Let’s go and play Bobby Jones.”
In contrast to his brother, Oliver, who was known for his conservative ways, Alfred Holmes—everyone called him Tup—liked to speak his mind straight out. He had played for the golf team at Tuskegee Institute, then gone to work for Lockheed Aircraft in Marietta, Georgia, where he became a union shop steward. While others in the room were shocked by his suggestion, Bell immediately agreed— and the two men devised a plan.
One member of the group, Kusuth B. Hill, would go on ahead to integrate Bobby Jones Golf Course by stealth, and the others would follow. With his light skin and blond hair, Hill had often been taken for white, and it was no different this time. A short time after Hill teed off, Bell and Holmes followed him to the course, and were turned away. “The head pro told us straight out we couldn’t play, that they didn’t allow no niggers at Bobby Jones,” Bell said. “We said, ‘Is that right? Well, there’s one on your course right now.’” Hill was quickly rounded up, and the party was ejected.
Two years later, the golfers filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the city to desegregate its parks and golf courses. Technically, they won when a federal judge ruled Atlanta must allow them to play at any municipal course available to whites. But the city’s response—Blacks would be allowed on the courses only when whites were not playing and certainly not on weekends—made the victory a hollow one. The golfers decided to appeal to a higher court.
John H. Calhoun, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, threw the weight of his organization behind the suit despite some dissent within the organization. Why spend the NAACP’s time and money on this case, some wondered, when so few Blacks played golf? Why not accept the court decision as a victory and move on to more important battles? But the case went forward under the direction of the NAACP lawyer brought in for the occasion, who was none other than Thurgood Marshall.
An appeals court in New Orleans upheld the original ruling, but on November 7, 1955, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed it. Citing Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark case argued and won (also unanimously) by Marshall the year before, as precedent, the court outlawed segregation in Atlanta’s parks, playgrounds, beaches, and golf courses.
“I appreciate the decision beyond all expression,” said Hamilton Holmes. “We know that it is right that we should be allowed to play on the city courses as taxpaying citizens. We understand how to play the game of golf and the courtesies of the game. You can be sure we will do what is right.”
The response of their opponents was less gracious. Racial slurs appeared on the benches and pavilions at Bobby Jones Golf Course, and the Holmes households began receiving threats. “As soon as you hit the house, the phone calls started,” Isabella Holmes, Tup’s wife, recalled in an interview with the Atlanta History Center in 1998. “The children were afraid. I was afraid. It was a frightening time.”
Many state and city politicians were equally intransigent. “Co-mingling of the races in Georgia state parks and recreation areas will not be tolerated,” said Governor Marvin Griffin. “The state will get out of the park business before allowing a breakdown in segregation in the intimacy of the playground.” If it were up to him, Griffin said, he would plow the city’s golf courses and plant alfalfa.
“It is obvious that the NAACP is able to obtain from that court any decision respecting segregation that is designed to further its program to force intermarriage,” state attorney general Eugene Cook said.
“It will probably mean the end of most public golf courses, playgrounds and things of that type,” said Herman Talmadge, who, as governor of Georgia at the time of the Brown decision, had predicted “blood will run in Atlanta’s streets,” calling segregation “the work of God.” “The city should consider leasing or selling its recreational facilities to private individuals, Talmadge said, a statement that led to mockery in some quarters. The South might be willing to sacrifice public education to preserve its prejudices, scoffed The Nation, but it is hard to believe it would ever give up golf.
One elected official who had no immediate public reaction to the decision was Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield. A shrewd politician, Hartsfield realized he had to navigate carefully between a white population in danger of being aroused by the inflammatory statements of some of its leaders and a black citizenry that suddenly found the law on its side. Most important, Hartsfield knew, was for the city to remain calm.
Moving quickly, he met with more than 100 employees of the city’s golf courses. If segregation meant closing the courses down, he said, they would lose their jobs. Considering the small number of black golfers who would show up, was defying the law really worth it? And besides, the mayor noted, there was no question of integrating the showersat the three public courses that had such facilities. The employees agreed to go along.
Hartsfield was just as direct with Bell and Tup and Oliver Holmes. If they played the Bobby Jones course, Hartsfield told them, there were bound to be problems. The press and television cameras would not be the only ones there; angry whites bent on making trouble were sure to join them. “They told me they had promised the television people they would appear,” Hartsfield later remembered. “I said, ‘Those TV boys aren’t interested in watching you hit the ball. They want to get pictures of you getting beat up.’”
Again, Hartsfield’s arguments prevailed, and Bell, the Holmes brothers and a few of their friends went to the North Fulton course several miles away. As they drove up, Bell saw a white man unpacking his golf bag look up in astonishment. “He made a beeline to the clubhouse,” Bell said, “to let them know the niggers were coming.”
But there were no disturbances, and, in fact, the new golfers were welcomed warmly. “Fellows, we’re glad to have you here,” one white golfer told them, and, as they passed a foursome on the course, a man called out,” I want to see a birdie next time.” Realizing they had been duped, reporters and cameraman raced to the course and caught up with the Black golfers on the fourth hole. “Nobody shot under par after that,” Bell noted.
Driving home after their historic round, Bell and the Holmes brothers passed the Bobby Jones course, where three Black golfers were playing. Nobody knew who they were, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Other golfers who followed them in the ensuing days encountered some harassment, but it disappeared almost entirely within a month. The issue faded from public scrutiny.
One significant factor in the acceptance of Hartsfield’s plan was the backing of many of Atlanta’s civic leaders, chief among them Robert W. Woodruff, the president of Coca-Cola, the region’s most prominent employer. Though his natural allies were some of the same politicians urging defiance of the court order, Woodruff understood the damage that could be done to the city by a potentially violent dispute, and he let it be known that he supported Hartsfield. Another sign of the support of the city’s power structure came in an editorial in The AtlantaJournal that said while the court’s decision was in “fundamental error,” it was the law of the land and should be obeyed.
But one voice that was not heard in the matter, either while it was being resolved or at any time afterwards, was that of the man for whom the golf course at the center of the struggle was named.
East Lake was where Jones learned to play golf and would be his home course for the remainder of his playing days. Built by the Atlanta Athletic Club six miles outside the city limits, East Lake was a popular vacation spot for those who wanted to loll on its beach and play tennis or golf. Jones’s family first took him there when he was six years old, and he began following the club’s pro, a taciturn Scotsman named Stewart Maiden, who would become his first teacher around the course as he gave lessons to adults. Then, since Jones was a child and not allowed on the course itself, he rushed home to imitate what he had seen on a short makeshift layout of his own. He was soon joined by other youngsters whose families were vacationing at East Lake, including a young girl named Alexa Stirling. She became one of his closest friends and went on to win three straight women’s national titles.
In later years, the respect for East Lake’s layout grew to the point that it hosted yearly qualifying trials for the U.S. Open and U.S Amateur, which led to Jones inadvertently being thrust into a controversy where again his voice could have made a difference.
It began in May of 1965 when Charlie Harrison, who was excited about playing in the 36-hole qualifying for the U.S. Open, was told something interesting by Woodrow Bryant about his playing partner for the day, a golfer named George Johnson. “He’s colored,” Bryant said, “plays out at Lincoln.”
Whether purposely or not, Bryant did not share this knowledge with Jim Brett, the starter for the event, and when Johnson arrived at East Lake the following morning and told Brett, “I’m here for the U.S. Open qualifying,” Brett responded by pointing off in the distance and saying, “The caddy shack is right over there.”
“I’ve got a player’s certificate,” Johnson said, and he handed it over. Witnesses said Brett was speechless and quite literally spinning in his tracks as he tried to come to terms with the first Black golfer ever to play at East Lake.
Though nervous at the start, Johnson quickly settled down and played excellent golf until, on the final few holes, his game fell apart and his score approached 80. Harrison, in the meantime, shot a 69, his best round ever in Open qualifying. Pleased with himself, he headed toward the clubhouse for lunch when something occurred to him. Where would Johnson eat? In the caddy shack? Surely not in the public restaurant on the course. Wait a minute, Harrison thought. They were trying to qualify for the U.S. Open together, weren’t they?
“Charlie, there’s a player’s luncheon in the clubhouse,” Harrison said. “Do you have time to get a bite to eat.”
“Great,” Johnson replied. The two men went inside, ate lunch, then returned to the course for their second rounds. The rest of the day proceeded without incident. Harrison qualified for the Open while Johnson did not and went home.
But soon, Harrison began hearing whispers. “Some of the members, some friends of yours even, think you ought to get kicked out of the club,” Tommy Barnes, a long-time East Lake member, told him. Larry Martin, the president of the Atlanta Athletic Club, which ran East Lake, told Harrison he must write a letter explaining why he had brought a Black man into the East Lake clubhouse. Then Harrison began hearing something he feared far more than losing his East Lake membership. If the U.S. Golf Association required the Atlanta Athletic Club to allow Black players on its grounds, it would refuse to host qualifying events for the U.S. Open or Amateur.
“That affected me selfishly because it certainly was an advantage if I could qualify on my home course,” Harrison said four decades later of his decision to approach East Lake’s most famous member for help. “It wasn’t all that noble.”
Harrison had known Jones casually since he was a boy hanging around East Lake in the 1940s. Years later, after winning two Atlanta city championships, Harrison joined a firm that handled some of Jones’ insurance and he occasionally visited Jones where, after they had gotten business out of the way, he would listen to Jones reminisce about his golf career. But now Harrison was approaching Jones on a more serious matter, and he was not sure what to expect. The important thing to emphasize, he thought as he told Jones of the letter he had been asked to write, was not the fate of his membership, but the possibility of East Lake withdrawing from USGA events. He was delighted when Jones said he agreed with him.
“Would it be all right if I used your name?” Harrison asked. “I think it would carry a lot more weight if I suggested in the letter that you agreed with me.”
“I certainly do agree,” Jones said, and he gave his assent.
Harrison’s letter to Martin was brief. During the time George Johnson spent in the clubhouse, he “had behaved himself in a gentlemanly manner and gave no cause for criticism.” While the directors might face problems from his presence, he hoped the club would not “alter its support of USGA sponsored tournaments.” And then, in a sentence near the end, Harrison fired his biggest gun: “I feel that Bob Jones will concur in my desire that the Club continue its major contribution to the game of golf.”
Harrison could not explain why he did not make his point with greater force. Why he did not say, “I have spoken with Bob Jones, who said he agrees with me, and would be happy to discuss this with you personally.”
“I don’t know, that’s just the way I wrote it,” Harrison told me. “I had no reason not to say Bob Jones will write you a letter or anything else. I wanted to give them the opportunity to talk to him if they wanted to. But if they did, it didn’t do any good.”
The East Lake board of directors was unmoved. Making no mention of Harrison’s invocation of Jones’ support, Martin wrote that the club would entertain no more unauthorized guests in its clubhouse. And there would be no more USGA events at East Lake.
There is no record of Jones going beyond Harrison’s carefully phrased statement or taking the matter up with the club’s directors personally. Like Harrison, he simply acquiesced. The two men never spoke of the subject again, or of anything else to do with Black and white golfers playing together. “I wasn’t on any crusade where I would call Bob Jones back and say, ‘This isn’t happening,’” Harrison said. “I made my pitch and accepted the fact we weren’t going to have any more tournaments.”
Within the next three years, the Atlanta Athletic Club sold East Lake and relocated to a new golf course in Duluth, a suburb northeast of Atlanta that was closer to the homes of many members. In 1970, a public housing project was built at East Lake, and it quickly became the center of one of the most crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhoods in the city. The golf course fell into disrepair until, in the 1990s, when Harrison, much to his surprise, had become the director of a Black-owned bank and, even more astonishingly, had moved into a house overlooking East Lake’s third green. “My wife always wanted to live in an old home and this one was built in 1856 and had a great Civil War history,” Harrison said. “The first two years we slept on the second floor because so many guns were being shot off outside at night.”
But at about that time, Atlanta developer Tom Cousins received a $15-million federal grant that allowed him to tear down the housing project and reclaim the surrounding area. He also persuaded 80 companies to buy corporate memberships, which helped him restore the East Lake course to its former elegance. Today, it is home to the PGA’s Tour Championship, which hosts the top 30 players in the world, who are members of many races.
It is important, Catherine Lewis says, to guard against what historians call “presentism”—observing events of the past in the light of current practices and beliefs. By this standard, it is unfair to judge what Jones did, and what he did not do, to promote equality in the sport that, because of the reverence in which he was held, would have been forced to act if he had spoken out.
But in the interest of magical thinking, let us contemplate just for a moment what might have happened if Jones had confronted Clifford Roberts and issued a statement asking past Masters champions to exercise their right to add a player to the tournament and invite Charlie Sifford.
Or if, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision barring segregation at the Bobby Jones Golf Course, he had announced he would meet Charles Bell and Hamilton, Tup, and Oliver Holmes at the first tee and shake their hands.
Or if he had challenged the directors of East Lake publicly and told them that the course should continue as a venue for all legitimate contestants in U.S. Open and Amateur qualifying. And he had then invited George Johnson to join him at the East Lake clubhouse as his guest for lunch.
Ron Rapoport is the author of The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf, from which this article was adapted. It was published in paperback in March 2021 by the University of Nebraska Press.
[Photo Credit: Ryan Schreiber/Flickr]