KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859 and emancipated by the Civil War, Junius Groves circa 1880 traveled 500 miles to Kansas with other freed slaves as part of what became the Exodus blacks from the South. He came up with 90 cents and later became known as the “Potato King of the World”.

Decades later, Joe Louis became the king of world heavyweight boxing, defending his title 25 times and dealing a capital symbolic blow against Nazi propaganda by inundating German Max Schmeling in their revenge in 1938.

Thomas Hunton Swope was a local real estate mogul and philanthropist who died under suspicious circumstances in 1909.

And then there were the citizens of Kansas Reuben Benton, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester “Pat” Johnson, who would become intertwined in local history as “The Foursome” with their vital but perhaps under- estimated in 1950.

On the surface, anyway, there is no obvious connection between these distant and disparate forces.

But they are all foundational pieces of a vast and fascinating tapestry of black golf history, Kansas City, and American culture, the subject of a documentary orchestrated by the Black Archives of Mid-America and which will be produced. by W. Stinson McClendon and Rodney Thompson of Reel Images.

“We want to talk about the good, the bad, the happy and the sad,” said James Watts, ombudsman for the Black Archives. “That’s what life is.”

In this case, as a view through the prism of sport often provides, Watts believes the production will both reflect and illuminate broader truths about the continued impact of repression, bigotry, denied access and systemic issues that are “no different from any other story in black pursuit of happiness.”

As such, he hopes it can help reshape and develop relationships in our community and beyond when it comes to a game in which black participation remains extremely low (only 3% of golfers recreational activities are black, according to a 2019 NBC report citing the National Golf Foundation) despite efforts to create diversity in the country and locally.

“If you change the way you look at things,” Watts said, “the things you look at will change.”

“Give life and breath to these times and to these people”

The project is still in its early stages, with a filming segment kicking off next week at the Creekmore Golf Club, for a target release in 2022.

But Watts has caught the Kansas City Star’s attention now because he’s seeking community help, personal experiences, and images related to donation-relevant artifacts and items to help fund him.

The documentary is also another way, said Black Archives executive director Carmaletta M. Williams, to continue “this struggle to tear down these walls” – walls that in this case did not exist just to deny possibilities. leisure activities to which everyone should be entitled (bad enough) but also to obstruct much more distant hopes and ambitions.

“If the decisions about you and your family, your life, your economy and your education are made on golf courses and you are left out of golf courses, then that’s systemic racism,” Williams said.

Noting that understanding the past is part of reconciling the future, she added that it was imperative to “bring this time and these people to life and life.”

The production has yet to be fully styled, and Watts also seeks to preserve some upstream mystique.

But his initial take on it seems inclined to follow barrier breakers along the way – through what he describes as parts of history that are both known and revealing and fused into what he thinks is. a unique context.

And at least tentatively, it will underline what Williams and Watts see as a striking chronicle here of bold action in the face of the dominant racist status quo.

Before lunch counters and bus boycotts

One hundred years ago in Edwardsville, Kan., According to Watts’ research and historical documentation, one of the few places where blacks in the area could play golf was on a course that Groves had built near the church. Baptist of Pleasant Hill whom he had founded.

The course was considered one of, if not the first golf course in the United States built to serve African Americans.

The men who played there formed the Heart of America Golf Club, which would later include Kansas notables such as City Councilor Bruce Watkins, baseball icon Buck O’Neil and Ollie Gates, the restaurant owner and commissioner. parks.

In the late 1930s, they were able to play in the 1,344-acre park donated in 1896 by Swope. But it was only a day or two a week (different historical reports differ) … on course # 2, part of what has come to be known as Watermelon Hill.

“It wasn’t a forward thinking mindset,” Watts said, “when you have to describe something that is # 1 and # 2.”

Even winning that pitch had been a struggle, said Watts, which only took place after a lawsuit brought by the Heart of America club against Kansas City in 1938, as also documented in George B. Kirsch’s book , “Golf In America”.

The cause, Watts added, was bolstered by the support of Roy Wilkins – the former Kansas City Call editor and reporter who would later become executive director of the NAACP.

“This is before the lunch counters and Brown versus (Board of Education of) Topeka; this is before the bus boycott,” Watts said.

While this cannot be immediately independently confirmed, Watts said part of what paved the way was that a little-known part of Swope’s will that said the park should not be separated.

“He was trying to move the city forward,” said Watts, who said he was in possession of the audio of the planning meeting that created the breakthrough relating to Swope.

But the winds of more significant change were fleeting, if not stopping, both here and around the nation.

As he became more enamored of pursuing a future in sports, Louis sponsored the Joe Louis Open in 1941 in his hometown of Detroit. But after his return from WWII, Louis became increasingly aware of the contradiction of having served in the US military and being denied equality … including the inability to play golf. competition where he wanted instead of just under the auspices of the United Golfers. Association founded for black golfers in 1925.

With the “Caucasian-only” membership clause built into the PGA statutes, Louis continued to seek opportunities and work on his game. He hired Teddy Rhodes, one of the great black golfers of the time, for being his coach and befriended Bill Spiller – who became a crucial catalyst for change that he sorely could never have enjoyed.

In 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson entered baseball, Spiller, Rhodes, and Madison Gunther were denied entry to that year’s Richmond, Calif. Open and filed a lawsuit against the PGA.

In Spiller’s case, it was despite qualifying at the Los Angeles Open, where he was tied for second with legendary Ben Hogan with a 68 on day one before finishing 34th there.

Days before the court date, ESPN said, the parties agreed to drop the lawsuit when the PGA said it would no longer discriminate.

“The lawsuit was dropped, but the plaintiffs were snooked,” ESPN wrote. “The PGA has suggested that sponsors start calling their tournaments ‘Open Invitationals’, invitation being the key word.

“Go ahead … stop us”

As change bubbled but stagnated, Reuben Benton, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester “Pat” Johnson traveled to Swope Park on March 24, 1950, intending to do the unthinkable: They were determined to play the course. No. 1 despite being told they couldn’t because they were “colored”.

As they made their way to the first tee, the superintendent said he would call the police.

“’Go ahead,’ the men said, ‘stop us,'” said the men, as J. Brady McCollough wrote in The Star in 2005. “They wouldn’t put up their fists or their voices, practicing Martin Luther King Jr. “theory of civil disobedience years before it became a popular mantra.”

It turns out that the police did not come that day.

But a different kind of struggle ensued in the months to come: Black men who took to playing on the course were likely to face harsh reception and vandalism, such as slashed car tires or broken windows.

Of course, there is so much more to this story.

Much like in the Tales of Louis and Spiller, Watts noted, among many others, an essential part of the narrative that the documentary will highlight.

Louis became the first person of color to compete in a PGA sanctioned event in 1952 at the San Diego Open – where Spiller was again turned down but made a resounding protest statement as he sat down and stood at the first tee to delay the tournament.

This became another element of Spiller’s instrumental contributions to the PGA, finally removing the Caucasus Clause only in 1961 and Charlie Sifford becoming the first African-American to secure a full-time PGA Tour card.

It’s all part of the good, the bad, the happy and the sad about how we got here now. And with this documentary, according to Watts and Williams, it’s part of how knowing the past could illuminate a brighter future.

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The Black Archives phone number is 816 221-1600, and the website is https://blackarchives.org/.

Donations and artifacts can be sent to Watts’ Care at 1722 East 17th. Terrace, Kansas City, Mo., 64108. Watts can also be emailed to [email protected]


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