Honoring Black History: Powell The
In 1962,ReneePowellofEast Canton,Ohio, became the first African-American to play in theUnited StatesGirls' Junior Championship. A year later, she played
in the national championship for the second time.Rhonda Glenn, Manager of USGA Communications, also played in 1963 and
recalls the times.
With February designated as Black History Month, the
USGA honors Powell and her career. Be sure to also check
out past stories on
By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
In July 1963, I finished a practice round at the United
States Girls' Junior Championship at Wolfert's Roost
Country Club in Albany, N.Y., as Renee Powell worked on her
putting stroke on the nearby practice green.
Powell was the first African-American golfer I'd ever
While I was a Southerner, my high school had been peacefully
integrated in 1961 and my uncle was assistant director of the
Peace Corps for West Africa, so what was then termed
"the race question," didn't seem an issue in my
insular little world. I just didn't know any
"What a poignant story; a real slice of
the American experience of race relations in
-Clarence B. Jones, former adviser, counsel
and draft speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther
Powell was a contestant, one of us, but she looked
than we did. Many of us wore loose-fitting khaki or plaid
shorts and white shirts, a little wrinkled from being in the
suitcase but admittedly the best we owned, and
"porkpie" bucket hats. The hats were a step up from
a visor and they were our fashion statement that summer. If
you didn't have a porkpie hat when you arrived, you saw
that nearly everyone else had one and so you rushed to the
pro shop to buy your own. That year, they meant you
In this gaggle of casually-dressed teenaged girls, Powell
looked as if she had just stepped out of a fashion magazine.
Her soft pink shirt perfectly matched her Bermuda shorts. She
even wore pink socks. Her hair gleamed and her smile dazzled
and she literally glided across the putting green. She looked
poised, as if she were
Most of the rest of us just looked, well,
. Thrilled to be there. Grateful. But many of us, especially
the first-timers, seemed wary, as if we might trip over a tee
marker or spill a drink on our new shirt or play the wrong
We were very earnest, we tried very hard and, somehow, we got
through it. I lost in the second flight, but I had a fistful
of mailing addresses for a dozen new friends. Jan Ferraris
won. Jan was a big deal. She was from San Francisco and
legend had it that she actually
Ken Venturi. Ferraris never looked nervous the whole week. In
the final she beat Peggy Conley, who was also composed. They
both wore porkpie hats.
From Albany, some of us went to Williamstown, Mass., to play
in the U.S. Women's Amateur the following week. Renee and
I both lost in the second round. I went home to Florida and
Renee returned to Ohio. I was shy and hadn't actually
talked to her over those few weeks. She was just one of the
other contestants, one who seemed nice and who seemed to have
Looking back at race relations in our country at that time, I
have since wondered what was behind her smile.
We had different lives and lived in different regions, but
the turbulent national scene affected every American in the
Just eight days after Powell and I both lost in the
Women's Amateur, Martin Luther King Jr., said, "
I Have a Dream"
to some 200,000 people congregated at the Lincoln Memorial
for the March on Washington.
Four months previously, Dr. King had been jailed in
Birmingham, Ala. Three months before that, Birmingham's
Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull"
Connor, used fire hoses and police dogs to attack black
people during a civil rights demonstration. And two months
before we teed it up in the Girls' Junior, Medgar Evers,
Mississippi's field secretary for the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),
was murdered outside his house.
For all of us, it was a particularly serious time in which to
be young. We'd been through the Cold War's "duck
and cover" drills in school; the threat of nuclear war
during the Cuban Missile Crisis was so close to Florida that
the fathers of a few of my schoolmates dug fall-out shelters.
All of it was brought into our living rooms by television
news programs, which one night featured recently-released
films of victims of the Nazi death camps. "I don't
want the children watching that," my mother told my
father. "I want them to see it," he said, "so
that it will never happen again."
And so, like Renee, I knew of these incidents. I saw the
March on Washington and the inspiring speech, and I saw the
fire hoses and police dogs. "Oh, Daddy!" I remember
crying to my father as we watched the battle on the news, and
his face was troubled and sad. This terrible, irresistible
force in our nation had spun out of control. The upheaval,
however, seemed to have little to do with
Then, in September, four little girls were killed when a
bomb exploded in a Birmingham church and in November,
President John F. Kennedy was killed.
I was a kid and like all kids I lived in that particularly
powerless twilight of youth, so unformed, so weak and
ineffectual that we couldn't vote, or even march and
carry a sign. All I could do was to be quiet and good and try
not to cry. My parents were stoic people and my mother seldom
discussed serious matters, so I have a vivid memory of when
she said, "What is
" one afternoon as we sat in the backyard.
That was 45 years ago. Every generation surely has its loss
of innocence but children can be resilient, so my friends and
I went on with our lives, finished school and went to work.
We had no outward scars. Golf - its solitary pursuit and the
lovely greenness of it - refreshed me as I grew up.
Far away in Ohio, Renee Powell was becoming a ground-breaker.
She went on to win numerous awards but she had lived through
the same era as I and I still wondered what portion of tragic
injustice lurked behind her smile that summer when the
country was going mad. Had Renee finally been able to, in the
words of Dr. King, "cash a check.a promissory note to
which every American was to fall heir?" Had she been
judged only for the content of her character? What about the
I caught up with Renee in January and as much as she loved
golf, and still loves it today, Powell said that her
evolution through the game was difficult.
"I began having racial problems at the age of 8, and
some are more subtle than others," said Powell.
"When I began, you saw very few people of color. I have
had unpleasant situations on the golf course, in the
clubhouse, driving into the clubhouse gate, going into the
locker room. Golf has also been one of those sports that have
quite a lot of racism attached to it, so I have forever been
a pioneer breaking down barriers and trying to, by example,
show that all persons should be given respect."
Powell grew up playing at Clearview Golf Club in East Canton,
a course built and operated by her father, William Powell,
who returned from World War II after serving in the U.S. Army
and wanted to build a golf course. "He decided to build
a course where no one was discriminated against because of
color, race or religion," she said.
In 1946, the year in which Renee was born, her father was
denied a G.I. Loan but gained financial support from two
black doctors as partners, and his brother, who mortgaged his
house. Powell began to build Clearview, walking back and
forth over the land, a hand seeder around his neck to seed
the first nine holes. He was Clearview's architect,
builder, superintendent, golf professional and owner and
William first put a club in Renee's hands when she was 3,
and the game soon became her buffer from discrimination.
"I ran into racism from the time I was 8 years old, and
it had a great impact on me," said Powell. "I
remember today the names of the people. These are things that
have affected you and give you an extra sense when you are
around people. It had a great impact on the lives of any
minority youngster who grew up in those days.I began to
experience racism in school and golf became a safe harbor for
me. Golf was a refuge because I could go out all by myself
and in my own little world. I was probably very shy because
of the all the racial issues I was confronted with."
Renee's father, her only instructor, filed her entry for
her first tournament when she was 12. Later, she played in
tournaments conducted by the United Golf Association (UGA),
an association for African-American golfers, and there she
met the top minority golfers of that era: Althea Gibson, Ann
Gregory and Ted Rhodes. "We all played in the UGA
tournaments because of the prejudice and racism at the
time," said Powell.
In 1962, Powell entered the United States Girls' Junior
Championship conducted at the Country Club of Buffalo (N.Y.)
by the United States Golf Association. Gregory had been the
first African-American to play in the U.S. Women's
Amateur in 1956, and Powell's appearance as the first
African-American in the Girls' Junior was just as
historic. The week, however, began badly.
"I remember not seeing anyone else that looked like
me," said Powell. "It was my first time at a
private country club and I wasn't sure how I would be
accepted by the members or the girls I was competing against.
I had been used to people being unfriendly at other courses
and my parents having to fight to get me into junior
tournaments, even in Ohio. Most of the girls were just very
stand-offish, I think because they knew each other and had
never seen a girl of color in their tournaments."
Renee stayed close to her father that week, but soon became
friends with Mary Lou Daniel of Louisville, Ky., and Ann
Baker of Maryville, Tenn. A number of USGA officials went out
of their way to make her feel welcome, she said. "They
were exceptionally nice.and welcoming," said Powell.
Reaching a level of comfort in Buffalo, Renee played
exceedingly well. She defeated Baker in the first round, and
then edged Jeannie Butler of Harlingen, Texas, in the second.
In the quarterfinals, she played a grueling match against
Mary Alice Sawyer of Baltimore, the eventual runner-up. One
spectator was the legendary Patty Berg, who followed the
match, all 21 holes of it, until Sawyer finally won.
|Ann Gregory, above, played in the
same era as Renee Powell. (USGA Photo Archives)|
"I was only 16," said Powell, "but from that
event I had good feelings about the USGA because they had
accepted me on my merits as a golfer and didn't reject
me, as other tournaments had, because of the color of my
Game And Race
Powell went on to play in the U.S. Women's Amateur at
Rochester C.C. and in the first round lost to another legend
of the game, the great Maureen Orcutt who had played on four
Curtis Cup teams in the 1930s. "At the time, I had no
idea who she was, but certainly found out later and had the
greatest respect for who she was and also the competitor she
was," said Powell. "I remember her mumbling, 'I
am not going to let a kid beat me,' and unfortunately, I
didn't." Orcutt won, 2 up.
The 1962 Women's Amateur was historic in that it was the
first time that three African-American contestants - Gibson,
Gregory and Powell - competed in match play. Only Gibson
advanced to the second round.
Powell's first USGA foray in 1962 was followed by her
second in 1963 but she made no particular effort to make
friends. "I was there to compete and not socialize
because it was a huge sacrifice on the part of my parents for
me to be able to travel and compete," she said.
"They wanted to give me the best opportunities to
compete against the best in golf."
Competition provided moments of joy, but Powell has darker
memories of that time: hotels that were closed to her because
of her race, restaurants that refused to serve her, and golf
courses where she couldn't play.
Like me, she saw the writhing of the civil rights struggle on
television and watched Bull Connor use his fire hoses and
dogs to attack people in Alabama. "It was man's
inhumanity to man," she said now, "citizens of our
own country, people trying to get rights that were set up in
our U.S. Constitution and our Declaration of
Little more than a week after she left the 1963 Girls'
Junior and Women's Amateur, the words of
"I Have a Dream,"
"I remember watching it and it was such a powerful
speech," said Powell. "What Dr. King did was so
powerful from 1963 to 1968. You can go back and look at so
many of his speeches and people are still talking about the
American dream. People are still dreaming.The journey has not
ended. We all have a stake in one global society, one earth.
What affects one, affects another."
The troubled years of the 1960s were not that long ago. Time
has dulled the images for many of us, but Powell remembers
those struggles with sharp insights honed by her experience.
"Today it is so different," said Powell.
"Youngsters have no idea that you couldn't get on
courses, or stay at hotels or be served in restaurants. They
have no idea. But I went through all of that. It didn't
affect my self-worth because my parents were always very
positive, my pillars of strength, my role models. I try to
educate others now and try to stamp out ignorance. I
didn't set out to be a pioneer. I
being a pioneer."
Powell has received numerous awards for humanitarian work. In
the 1970s, she was part of a USO tour to entertain U.S.
troops in Viet Nam. Over the years she traveled extensively,
designed sports clothes, held several favored positions as a
professional and has conducted benefits. One treasured
memory is when she was given the 1991 Dr. Martin Luther King
Drum Major for Justice Award and sat on a stage with Coretta
Scott King and the widows of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. She
has been honored by the PGA of America, the LPGA, the United
States Congress, golf magazines and numerous halls of fame.
On Martin Luther King's birthday on Jan. 21, she was
guest speaker at a local college.
Last year, Powell made her 25
trip to Africa at the behest of two-time U.S. Women's
Open champion Betsy King, who is leading a group called Golf
Fore Africa that is making efforts to help the people of
Rwanda. The group's first project is in Mudasomwa, where
monies are being spent for basic needs for AIDS orphans and
vulnerable children. As a USGA volunteer, Powell has also
been a member of the U.S. Girls' Junior Committee for 17
Today, Powell is back at Clearview. She's the golf
professional there and stages a number of charity pro-ams.
Renee's mother, Marcella Powell, died in 1996. Her
brother Larry Powell is Clearview's green superintendent.
Her father William, himself the recipient of many awards, is
91 but is still an inspiration around the club.
Seven years ago the Clearview Legacy Foundation for
education, preservation and research was formed. That same
year, Clearview Golf Club was placed on the National Register
of Historic Places. Today, more minority golfers than ever
before are discovering that Clearview is a great place to
play. For Renee Powell, who endured so much in order to play
the game, Clearview is where her journey began and where
"The Dream" will never die.
RhondaGlennis a Manager of USGA Communications. E-mail her with
questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.