Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Black golf pioneer helped end America's apartheid

By DeWayne Wickham

By his own admission, 2009 was the best year of William Powell's life. It was also the last.

In his final months, the 93-year-old golf pioneer received the Professional Golf Association's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, was inducted into the Northern Ohio PGA Hall of Fame and named the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association Person of the Year.

Powell got his award on the eve of 2009 PGA Championship, along with congratulatory letters from President Obama and former President George H.W. Bush. This was long overdue recognition for the black World War II veteran who died 61 years after he broke one of golf's biggest color barriers.

In 1946, with seed money he borrowed from his brother and two black doctors, Powell began construction of a golf course in East Canton, Ohio. This was a year before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball. Clearview Golf Club opened in 1948. Back then it was only a nine-hole course that Powell opened up to people of all races and ethnicities - at a time when most golf courses in this country were closed to minorities.

Powell did this without fanfare. There were no journalists strolling his fairways to chronicle how black and white golfers got along in that newly integrated setting. Unlike Robinson, he wasn't toasted as a trailblazer, or lionized as a living legend. But he did become the target of racists who called his golf course "the nigger nine," even after it expanded to 18 holes in 1978.

"I wanted this to be a place everybody could play," Powell told me when I visited his golf course in 1997. "I wanted it to be a place where race didn't matter; where the only thing that matters is the game of golf."

That day I played Clearview with his daughter, Renee Powell. The course's head professional, she was taught the game by her father, who was a pretty good amateur golfer./ Renee is one of only three black women to have ever played on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She told me how for many years her father worked nights as a security guard to earn enough money to take care of his family while he spent his days building Clearview. Powell's dedication paid off. He is the only black in this country to build, own and operate a golf course.

"Bill Powell will forever be one of golf's most unforgettable American heroes," PGA President Jim Remy said in a statement released by the golf organization shortly after Powell died on Dec. 31.

I hope he's right.

For much of his life, Powell struggled to keep Clearview open. While he invited everyone to play his golf course, not enough people showed up to give it financial security. Still Powell persevered and Clearview survived as a symbol of what one determined person can do to chip away at the rot a society produces.

History often forgets people like Powell, who are not always included among the pantheon of heroes who are credited with breaking the back of the American apartheid. That's understandable. He didn't topple any of this odious system's pillars, or stare down any of its architects. But he did crack one of its underpinnings - and, in doing so, made it possible for others to knock it down.

That's the thing that needs to be remembered about William Powell. In transforming a stretch of Ohio farmland into a place where all people were welcomed, he had an impact on this country that reached far beyond the game of golf.

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