J. Brady McCollough
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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Playing through

Fifty-five years ago, fearless foursome teed off against racial barrier at public golf course in Swope Park.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star


The course on the hill taunted them. They couldn't see its grand design from where they played, but they could feel its heavy gaze each time they teed off in the flatlands hundreds of feet below.

 

The four black men weren't invited to old man Swope's public course No. 1, which to them might as well have been private.

 

Last week, that same course, nestled in the southeastern hills of Kansas City, played host to the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links championship. Last week, the public course was packed with 144 girls and women who don't need monthly membership fees and the security of a country club to play the game.

 

But 55 years ago, the course was public in name only. More accurately, it was public if you were white. That is, until Reuben Benton, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester "Pat" Johnson decided they were tired of waiting for an invitation.

 

On Friday, March 24, 1950, they drove that winding road up the hill, walked in the clubhouse and laid their greens fees on the counter. The man behind the counter looked up, astonished. They knew what he would say.

 

You can't play here, but you can play at course No. 2. The superintendent expected the men to walk away and get back in their cars, like the black men who preceded them.

 

But not on this day, not with the seeds of change already planted and sprouting in voting booths, college classrooms and bowling alleys across the country. The four men marched toward the first tee of the No. 1 course. The superintendent said he'd call the police.

 

Go ahead, the men said, arrest us. They would not raise their fists or their voices, practicing Martin Luther King Jr.'s theory of civil disobedience years before it became a popular mantra.

 

The first man walked to the tee, set his ball down and got into position. The vast fairway beckoned in front of him. Shocked white faces glared behind him. He brought his club back, followed through and watched his ball land on the fairway.

 

***

 

When World War II ended, black soldiers returned from the front lines of Europe and the islands of the Pacific and found they'd been fighting for somebody else's freedom.

 

Back home in Kansas City, an invisible wall hemmed in black people east of Troost Avenue and north of 27th Street. They just weren't welcome on the other side.

 

They could enjoy only two areas of Swope Park: golf course No. 2 and Watermelon Hill, the worst location in the entire place, next to the old zoo.

 

"You'd be eating a sandwich," said 90-year-old Kansas City native Lloyd Givan, "and you'd get a whiff of the zoo animals."

 

Nevertheless, because it did provide them a few amenities, Swope Park became a meeting place for black people. They'd take the streetcars from 31st Street all the way into the park, even though they weren't allowed to swim or ride the boats.

 

But while it appeared as if the war had accomplished nothing for civil rights, victories on the home front - some resounding, some under the surface - were beginning to occur.

 

Three percent of black people voted in 1940. But in 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the white primary, under which the Democratic Party in the South maintained whites-only hegemony. Twenty percent of black people voted in 1950.

 

"World War II veterans started returning to the South, and you had a different kind of political energy," said Charles M. Payne, professor of African-American studies, history and sociology at Duke University. "The post-World War II generation was optimistic and confident that things were going to change."

 

Givan was one of those men. He'd been away from Kansas City for what seemed like a decade.

 

"I was in the first draft from the neighborhood," Givan said. "Everybody thought I was dead, but I showed up one day."

 

He didn't like what he saw.

 

"I laid down my life for these people," Givan said. "Some of them have never been in the service, and they're telling me I can't play on a public golf course."

 

Givan knew things would get better, though. He met Jackie Robinson while training at Fort Riley in Kansas. In 1947, Robinson broke baseball's color barrier when he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

 

"That had a tremendous symbolic value," Payne said, "arguably more than Brown v. Board of Education."

 

During the war, many black men and women on the home front took war jobs, which helped to form an empowered black middle class. With unionized factory jobs instead of agricultural labor, black people could start thinking on a larger scale.

 

On the home front, pockets of white people began to feel ashamed of their prejudice.

 

"If we're in a war about democracy against fascism," Payne said, "that makes people question the appropriateness of racism."

 

These national and international developments served as harbingers for the first organized attack on Jim Crow in mid-century Kansas City. Mr. Crow's instruments - the restaurant hostesses, the bus drivers and the cinema ushers - began to lose their voices.

 

The Kansas City Call, the black weekly newspaper, reported new victories in integration almost every week in the spring and summer of 1950. Kansas City black people earned the right to use the city's bus terminal. The University of Missouri decided to admit black people.

 

Golf courses were being integrated all over the country, and most Midwestern cities already had integrated courses.

 

Why not Kansas City?

 

***

 

To change the culture of Swope No. 1 in 1950, the four men would have to fight through the city's blossoming belief that the course had been dropped from the heavens.

 

In 1896, Col. Thomas Swope donated 1,344 acres of land to be used as a public park. Swope No. 1, the city's first 18-hole public links, was built in 1913 on the bluffs north of the Lake of the Woods in Swope Park.

 

In 1934, the city enlisted the renowned A.W. Tillinghast of New York to redesign the course. Just one year later, when Swope No. 1 reopened with lush greens and deadly sand traps, it was tabbed by The Star as one of the finest municipal golf courses in the nation.

 

Sure, white people would maybe consider sharing lesser things with black people, but Tillinghast's work of art? Swope No. 1 became a country club for white men who could not afford to join a real one.

 

"No. 1 was being used as a private club, but the taxpayers were supporting it," Givan said. "It was a private club for ordinary whites."

 

Black people started playing golf in Kansas City in the 1920s on a potato farm. Junius Grove, a black farmer known as "the potato king," carved out a nine-hole course in Edwardsville, between Bonner Springs and Kansas City. The men who played on it formed a group called the Heart of America Golf Club. In the mid-'30s, the club was able to play at Swope No. 2, but only on Mondays.

 

The men of the Heart of America Golf Club played in regional tournaments for black golfers in cities all over the Midwest. Eventually, the club included some of Kansas City's most influential black men, including City Councilman Bruce Watkins, baseball legend Buck O'Neil, boxer Arrington "Bubble" Klice and Ollie Gates, restaurant owner and parks commissioner.

 

In the late '40s, black golfers realized their game was suffering from their isolation on course No. 2, which carried that number for a reason. No. 2 had half the holes and half the challenge of No. 1. According to The Call, Kansas City golfers were taking a "stinging beating" in regional tournaments. They were known as the "Scrawny-Driving" boys.

 

On a Sunday in early March 1950, three weeks before that fateful Friday, George Johnson and three other gentlemen took the next step toward improving their golf games. It was perfect weather for an afternoon round of 18 holes, not nine.

 

The four men leisurely strolled into the clubhouse of Swope No. 1, as if they'd done it a million times. The man behind the counter, of course, didn't buy it. They were refused tickets.

 

"We're certainly sorry to hear that," one of the men said, according to a Call story the next week. "It was such a lovely day, and we had hoped to be able to play some golf."

 

Johnson and the men left. The drive down the hill felt much longer than the drive up.

 

***

 

They called themselves "the foursome."

 

Reuben Benton was a newspaperman, advertising director and later a co-owner of The Call. Through the paper, he was in a position to effect social change in Kansas City. The people who knew him remember his smile and his zest for life.

 

"At events, my daughters wanted to find Reuben so they could dance with him, even as adults," said Missouri state Sen. Yvonne Wilson, a family friend of Benton's.

 

George Johnson had been playing golf since he was a youngster, and even played at the potato farm.

 

"He was always playing," said Givan, a lifelong friend of Johnson's.

 

Johnson was an imposing man, remembered to be at least 6 feet 4. He had lived with his first failed attempt to integrate Swope No. 1 for too long. He would not be denied again.

 

Leroy Doty and Sylvester Johnson were known for their involvement in the Heart of America Golf Club.

 

The foursome, above all, shared a love for golf, and they were determined to finish the job on that Friday.

 

If the foursome had picked up The Call sports section that morning, they would have read about Ford Smith, who that week became the first black pitcher on the New York Giants. March 24 was a cloudy, brisk day, with temperatures fluctuating in the 50s.

 

Wearing their light golf slacks and collared shirts, the foursome repeated what the previous four had done and put their greens fees on the counter. The Call reported the ensuing conversation in its April 7 edition:

 

"Now, boys, you know you can't play here; you're colored fellows," the superintendent said.

 

"Who said we can't?" responded one of the foursome.

 

"They said it downtown."

 

"Who said it and why?"

 

"Can't say who said it, but they said it; that's all I know."

 

"Well, if you can't say who said we can't play, and if you don't know why, then we'll go ahead and play and let them tell us," said one of the players.

 

The players walked to the first tee, where three white golfers were about to tee off. One of the white players said: "We're sort of duffers. If you will, we'd like you fellows to start first and then we will not hold you up."

 

The superintendent soon bellowed, "Now, fellows, you know this isn't right, you're supposed to play down at No. 2!"

 

The foursome teed off, all hitting the fairway short of the green on the par-4 hole. The superintendent turned and walked back to the clubhouse a beaten man.

 

The foursome worried that the police would appear and they'd be arrested, but there were no sirens. After four holes, they relaxed and enjoyed the first of what would be many rounds at Swope No. 1.

 

***

 

The white men who ran the course weren't going to give up their private club that easily. As foursomes of black men continued their attempts to play in the weeks, months and years after, they were still not awarded tickets. The police would show up on occasion but would tell the Swope workers that this was out of their jurisdiction.

 

So, without the help of the legal system, it became guerrilla war. Black men who played at Swope No. 1 had their tires slashed.

 

The men of the Heart of America always had an answer, though. After a couple of weeks, foursomes became groups of five. At the beginning of a round, they would roll dice. The man with the lowest roll would watch the cars for the first nine holes, and then the highest scorer of the playing four would replace him.

 

Givan joined the Heart of America Golf Club and started playing Swope No. 1 soon after its gate had been opened for black golfers. He and his buddies had a different approach.

 

"We'd meet at a shopping area on 47th Street, and then we'd get a taxi," Givan said, laughing. "We'd all pile in that taxi and go up to the golf course, play, then ride back to our cars.

 

"We broke up the club. They never forgave us for that."

 

By the early '60s, most white golfers had stopped playing at Swope. They took their money with them, as Swope became a microcosm of white flight all over the country.

 

For the next 25 years, the course underwent a massive decline because of negligence from the city, according to Gates.

 

"They stopped taking care of it," said Angela Klice, "Bubble" Klice's daughter, who played at Swope in that era. "I guess that was their way of rebelling. They couldn't do anything about blacks being there, so that was a way of letting them know they weren't happy."

 

Gates, an old family friend of Reuben Benton's, served on the city parks and recreation board for 18 years. In the late '80s, he saw to it that the foursome's efforts were not forgotten. He pushed for the course to be remodeled and restored to its pre-'60s, Tillinghast form. Gates persuaded the park board to make that commitment to Swope No. 1, now called Swope Memorial.

 

"I watched it deteriorate because it became a black golf course," Gates said. "We fixed it up in the '90s, and now, it's everybody's golf course."

 

Yes, the white people came back after the restoration. The course looked so good and played so well that, in August of 2002, the USGA chose Swope Memorial as the site of last week's national championship.

 

***

 

On Thursday morning, the sun beat down on the 32 women still vying for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links title. The views from the Swope Memorial clubhouse were impeccable - as they were 55 years ago - the greens fast and the roughs deep.

 

This is what Tillinghast imagined: a championship course, picturesque and challenging for the best public golfers.

 

There were players from all over the globe here, many of them trying to show they belong. None of them belongs to a country club. White spectators watched and cheered for girls and women of all ages and many nationalities.

 

And this is what the foursome imagined, a course with its doors, its arms and its heart open for all. If only they were around to see it.

 

Reuben Benton was the last of the foursome to die, in February 2000. Only a few Heart of America members from the early '50s are still living, but most aren't able to remember much. Tony Adams, a restaurant owner in his day, is battling heart problems. "Bubble" Klice has Alzheimer's.

 

Benton left a widow, Dorothy Benton, whom he married after 1950. Reuben never told Dorothy the story of how he integrated Swope No. 1. All she knew was that it happened.

 

But one day, he showed her a large picture of himself and three other men whom Dorothy didn't recognize.

 

Reuben flashed that trademark smile and proudly told her, "We were the foursome."

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