Rogers Park Golf Course, a sporty little layout in Tampa, Fla., has no designer touches. No decorative fountains. No vast bunkers. And yet, the course is so well-known that throughout the United States it’s simply called, “Rogers,” or sometimes just “The Park.”
Few have heard of the architect, but a Tampa street is named for Willie Black. Some 60 years ago, Black looked at land tangled in oaks and choked in the death-grip of palmettos and saw a golf course.
Black cleared the land by hand, and hundreds of pairs of African-American hands joined in. They had no place to play golf, so they ripped out the foliage, dug up the weeds and plowed the fairways. They wrangled tree stumps out of the ground with picks. They dug bunkers with shovels. They smoothed the sand with hoes and rakes. And then they planted sod.
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It is spring, the kind of day that puts a little lilt in the step of golfers at Augusta, or Pinehurst, or here at Rogers Park. Breezes play in the new green leaves and a few of the houses on the bumpy road in are graced by brilliant blazes of azaleas. Down Willie Black Drive, past the water plant and over the railroad tracks, stands a small modern clubhouse. The Park.
A hundred golfers hit balls, stroke practice putts, and line up for sandwiches at the grill. A handful are Caucasian. Most are African-American. The Mid-Winter Classic is back and a sweet joy is in the air. The Mid-Winter is a time-honored tournament resurrected for National Black Golf Hall of Fame weekend. Nestle’ USA has put up a $15,000 purse. The Tampa Sports Authority and Advocates USA support the event. This tournament was part of what was once known as “The Chittlin’ Circuit,” sponsored by the now-extinct United Golf Association, an organization for minority golfers. When Willie Black began to build this course, segregation ruled and the Chittlin’ Circuit was the only tour on which African-Americans could play.
This day at Rogers Park is a family reunion. There are the respected elder statesmen, Rev. Francis Stinson Davis and Eddie James Smith Jr. There are the veteran professional golfers, Adrian Stills and Jim Dent, and the young men who used to call The Park home, such as Spencer McIntosh, who is 23. For them, Rogers Park has been revived.
The City of Tampa acquired the land for a park in 1947 and Black asked then-Mayor Curtis Hixon if he could build a golf course on part of it. Hixon agreed. The land was part of the Rogers Park complex, the only place where members of the African-American community felt they could congregate for picnics and games. When construction of the golf course began, the park had only a shed with a juke box.
Black drafted 65 volunteers to help build his dream. Even in the early evenings the summer heat was unmerciful, the work was brutal and within two years the number of volunteers had shrunk to two. But Tampa’s caddies pitched in and Black kept shaping the land.
Rev. Davis was a teenager when he helped build the course. He was a caddie, hitching rides to Forest Hills Golf Course, which was 14 miles from his home. Caddies from all over Tampa heard about Willie Black’s course, which would be only the second in Florida to permit African-Americans to play (the other was in Miami Springs) and they came together for a common cause.
“I’d come out here and work on the golf course for Willie Black,” Davis says. “Guys who were caddies and yard people who had the equipment would come over here after work and bring their equipment to help build it.”
Eddie James Smith Jr., pitched in. “I shoveled out bunkers, helped shape greens,” Smith says. “I remember seeing Willie Black stand on that big hill over there on No. 6. It was like he was on a mountaintop. He was like John Wayne, Big Jake, surveying the area, all alone in the sun. Things that powerful stick with you.”
When Rogers Park Golf Course was finally launched, golfers flocked to the nine-hole layout. “Jackie Robinson used to play here, and Joe Louis, Jim Thorpe and his brother Chuck,” Davis says. “Charlie Sifford used to call this his winter home. From January through March this place was filled with people, including black actors and singers. You could go anywhere in the country and find out how powerful this golf course was to people.”
Hundreds of spectators lined up behind the practice tee in those days, watching the players hit balls. “People from Chicago, New York and California were there watching,” Davis says. “Practicing golf was a major thing then.”
Davis smiled, recalling that gangsters from the north also hung out at Rogers Park. “They’d drive up in their big cars, and stand behind the practice tee, and they’d bet as much as $5,000 on a player,” he says.
Spencer McIntosh was 5 years old when he joined the Urban Junior Golf Program at Rogers Park. McIntosh eventually became a scratch player, but after college went to work for Morgan Stanley in New York.
“It’s kind of surreal,” McIntosh says. “I grew up at Rogers Park, so I didn’t know about Scotland or St. Andrews, or places like that. As I get older, the significance of this course means more. It’s very hard to find anything like Rogers Park. Willie Black was a pioneer. I don’t think many other people back then even thought to get others involved in golf.”
Eddie Smith credits Rogers Park’s welcoming atmosphere for its meaningful place in golfer’s lives. “People come back because they appreciate being accepted with open arms,” Smith says. “Althea Gibson used to come here to hang with Jimmy Taylor, who had a golf school in Harlem. He helped organize the Mid-Winter Classic with Eldorado Long and Herman Dubois.”
When the course opened in 1953, Willie Black was named manager. His paycheck came from golf ball sales and greens fees ranging from 25-to-50-cents. The course was expanded to 18 holes in 1954. Dubois and Taylor worked as shop attendants and ran the Mid-Winter Classic from 1956 until 1971.
For many, even the park’s name strikes a chord. George Devoe Rogers, for whom the park is named, was a successful African-American businessman in central Florida in the 1940s and ‘50s. Virtually self-educated, Rogers founded the Central Life Insurance Company.
As much as “The Park” means to today’s golfers, it meant even more in the 1950s. Long before school desegregation, African-Americans were ostracized, many were the victims of violence, and nearly all were kept out of places where they are free to go today.
“You couldn’t get jobs, you couldn’t go anywhere,” Davis says. “Rogers Park meant much more than anyone could ever imagine, although very few African-Americans in those days knew about golf. I never got caught up in the black-white thing, because of golf. You’d come out here and see the roughest characters, and when they got on the golf course, they were gentlemen.”
Some three dozen youngsters in neatly-pressed, navy golf shirts and khaki pants watch professional James Black hit balls. He’s an older player now, but his swing is a thing of beauty, balanced, flowing and free, and he pounds out the balls in screaming arcs against the sky. The kids are respectful as Black shares his creed.
“And what’s the biggest room in the world?” he asks the children. “No, not the living room. The biggest room in the world is your imagination!”
On first meeting, James Black digs into his pocket for a worn player’s badge. It’s nicked, but polished to a high golden sheen. He earned the player’s badge as a competitor in the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. It was a mighty long way from Rogers Park. Today, he speaks at schools and colleges to inspire young African-Americans.
“I tell them to look in the mirror before they walk out the door,” James Black says. “No baseball caps turned around on the back of the head. Look good. Be proud. You’re a golfer now.”
Youngsters are welcomed at The Park. Each year, some 350 enjoy the golf programs, many of which have been funded by USGA grants totaling more than $100,000 since the year 2000. Youngsters could learn from the rich history at Rogers Park.
The course’s driving force, Willie Black, who has since died, was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame some 25 years ago. In 1987 he told Mike Vitale of the St. Petersburg Times: “That was a good feeling, to know that the things you have done and accomplished have been appreciated. I sort of choked up when I accepted my plaque. It was a long time coming.”
Several young men from college golf teams are in Tampa for this year’s Hall of Fame festivities. “I came to listen to you,” one tells the older men. “I came to hear your stories.”
There are a hundred stories at Rogers Park but this place prompts speculation that an important segment of golf history could be lost. Some of the stories were told in books by Pete McDaniel and Calvin Sinnett, and The Golf Channel produced a program about African-Americans in golf, but the audiences were small.
One story includes the late Harold Dunovant, the first African-American to graduate from the PGA’s business school in 1964. Dunovant couldn’t become a Class A PGA Member for six years because no one would sign his application. Dunovant founded the National Black Golf Hall of Fame. His son, Jeffrey Dunovant, a Class A PGA Professional at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, nurtures the Hall of Fame today.
At the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, poet Valada Parker Flewellyn reads her poem, “Make Some Noise,” but she first offers an impromptu prelude.
“I love to tell the story,” Flewellyn calls, in a voice rich and powerful with the fragment of the old hymn. “Our stories. Our stories. Just let me play!”
Barbara Douglas, the first minority member and now chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee, and John Merchant, first minority on the USGA Executive Committee, were inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as Winston Lake Golf Course in Winston-Salem, N.C. In the audience the old men who have lived this story, and the young people who have come to hear it, seem thoughtful and reserved.
It’s a story stretching from John Shippen, the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open, to youngsters involved in The First Tee. In more than a century of forgotten deeds, it is a very real chapter of the game of golf.
Part of that tale is the story of Willie Black and the African-Americans who helped him build “The Park.” Hundreds of hands. Tree stumps and weeds. Picks and shovels. Five years of work.
Some come to Rogers Park to relive their own history. Some come to honor a place of pride. It’s a good little course and well maintained. From the tee, the fairway of one of the holes rises in a steady incline to the horizon and it’s a long, hard climb to the top. But from the peak you can see the bunkers and the flagstick and the green. Then you know – with absolute and blessed assurance – that in the hard clay of Tampa, Willie Black climbed his mountain and you have seen the light below.