Joe Louis Barrow Jr. is no stranger to making speeches. He makes more than 125 public appearances every year as chief executive officer of The First Tee and has given dozens of talks on the 1988 book he wrote about his father, Joe Louis: 50 Years An American Hero. But when Barrow stepped to the podium last weekend, he addressed a topic that he had rarely spoken upon in the past: Joe Louis as a barrier breaker in golf.
Barrow, along with fellow presenters Renee Powell, Dr. Calvin Sinnette, Bill Wright and Dr. Yohuru Williams, told stories of courage, strength, perseverance and determination to a crowd of about 200 people who gathered at the USGA in Far Hills, N.J., for the 2012 African-American Golf History Symposium on Feb. 18.
The event coincided with the opening of the USGA Museum’s exhibit, “American Champions and Barrier Breakers,” which explores the careers of three transcendent athletes – Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson – who not only competed athletically at an exceptionally high level, but shattered racial barriers in the process. While the trio was better known for their accomplishments in boxing, baseball and tennis, respectively, they all played a significant role in making golf a more accessible game in America.
Barrow touched on his father’s record-breaking boxing career, which featured nearly a dozen consecutive years as heavyweight champion and a record 25 successful title defenses. But the impact of his victories was also felt outside the ring.
Louis helped to support financially the careers of several early African-American professional golfers, like Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and Charlie Sifford, and according to Renee Powell, Louis even bought round-trip airfare for Althea Gibson so she could compete at Wimbledon in the late 1950s.
Louis was an accomplished player as well. He competed in several amateur events through the United Golfers Association (UGA) and was the first African American to play in a PGA Tour event – the 1952 San Diego Open – when he received a sponsor’s exemption to gain entry.
For Barrow, growing up as the son of the heavyweight champ presented some privacy challenges. Swarms of fans and admirers would approach Louis on the street and in restaurants requesting a photo or autograph. But the game of golf allowed father and son to share some quality time together.
“Some of the most intimate moments I had with my father were on the golf course,” said Barrow. “It was just the two of us.”
Sinnette, the author of Forbidden Fairways, spoke on the contributions of Atlanta-based advertising executive Moss Kendrix. Without the initiative of Kendrix, African Americans and other minorities would not have been as well represented in print advertisements, on television or in the movies in the 1940s and 1950s. He helped to make corporate America aware of the buying power of African Americans, which in turn opened up employment opportunities for blacks.
Kendrix, whose sons Moss Jr., and Alan attended the symposium, provided significant financial support for many UGA tournaments. Kendrix’s photo appeared in nearly every tournament program and he was one of two initial inductees into the UGA Hall of Fame, with Dr. Hamilton M. Holmes Sr.
Powell, who played in over 250 LPGA tournaments, spoke about her relationship with Gibson. They were the first two African Americans to play on the LPGA Tour and despite an age difference of nearly 20 years, became close friends during their years on Tour together.
“Althea was a great athlete who just happened to be African American,” said Powell. “No other female athlete other than Babe [Didrikson Zaharias] could match her talent.”
Gibson’s talents ranged far and wide. She won five Grand Slam singles titles in tennis, including back-to-back victories at both Wimbeldon and the U.S. National Championships in 1957 and 1958. The woman touted as the “Queen of Tennis” retired in 1958 and spent time recording a record album, acting in movies and touring with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Despite a limited background in golf, Gibson joined the LPGA Tour in 1964. She was one of the Tour’s longest hitters and was determined to become a champion as she had in tennis.
“If Althea had started to play earlier, she would have been the ‘Queen of Golf’ as well,” said Powell.
After a lunch break, during which the audience visited the Museum’s “American Champions and Barrier Breakers” exhibit, 75-year-old Bill Wright spoke on what it meant to be a USGA champion and his journey as a minority golfer.
Wright recalled a childhood spent playing basketball with the likes of Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor and hopping fences to hit golf balls in a field at Jefferson Park Golf Course – the same course where fellow Seattle native Fred Couples grew up playing.
Wright learned the game caddieing for his father, but honed his putting skills on the kitchen floor against his whole family.
“My mother would cook dinner,” recalled Wright, “and we would all putt to see who would have to do dishes. I was regarded as a pretty good putter at the time, but man, there was a lot of pressure over those six-footers.”
In 1959, Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Wellshire Golf Course near Denver, Colo., dazzling his opponents with an array of birdies rolled in with his Spalding Autograph putter – a club that is now on display in The Comeback Age gallery within the USGA Museum.
The final speaker was Dr. Yohuru Williams, the chief historian and vice president for public education and research at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Like Gibson, Robinson was a talented athlete at several sports. He lettered in four varsity sports at UCLA. He met Louis while stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas while serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1940s and the two maintained a lifelong friendship.
Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and was a six-time All-Star during his 10-year Hall of Fame career. When he signed his first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, general manager Branch Rickey, knowing the abuse Robinson would take as the first African American in the major leagues, told the second baseman he wanted a man “who was strong enough to not fight back.”
After he retired, however, Robinson took to the front lines, speaking out against inequalities in golf. He used a syndicated newspaper column as a platform to address the exclusionary policies that were still employed in golf.
Making parallels to his own situation in baseball, Robinson warned close friend Charlie Sifford that people would call him names and perhaps even physically threaten him, but advised Sifford to remain calm and not to return the hatred so he could help pave the way for future African Americans in golf.
The USGA Museum’s exhibit, “American Champions and Barrier Breakers,” will run through the end of July. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information on admission, directions or group tours, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to email@example.com.