NOTE: This article first appeared on usga.org on Feb. 26, 2018.
USGA GOLF MUSEUM
Black History Month: Obstacles No Match for Gregory
February 11, 2022
By David Shefter, USGA
For 20-plus years, JoAnn Gregory Overstreet and her husband, Louis, turned their Las Vegas residence into a mini-shrine to her mother, one of golf’s true pioneers. The sun room featured scrapbooks, photos, plaques, trophies and other memorabilia from the life and times of Ann Gregory, the first African-American woman to compete in a USGA championship.
“It’s luck that we kept a lot of the pictures, scrapbooks and other stuff from her accomplishments,” said JoAnn.
Overstreet wanted to preserve the memorabilia so that her grandchildren – she has two, with another due in May – could appreciate what their great-grandmother achieved during an era when the game was not welcoming to Black players.
Ann Gregory endured bigotry and prejudice in her quest to test herself against elite female competitors during the 1950s. Her chance finally came in 1956 when she played in both the U.S. Women’s Open at Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minn., and the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis. By the time she passed away on Feb. 5, 1990, Gregory had competed in 27 USGA championships, including a runner-up finish in the 1971 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.
Just a few months before she died, Gregory won a gold medal in the National Senior Olympics in St. Louis at the age of 76.
“She just loved the game of golf and she just wanted to play,” said Overstreet.
Thanks to the generosity of Overstreet, Gregory’s legacy and passion are on full display in a temporary exhibit at the USGA Golf Museum through March 12, as part of the USGA’s celebration of Black History Month. Among the artifacts is Gregory’s 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur competitor’s badge, which was acquired from the Zaharias Golf Foundation. Three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion and Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias called it one of her most prized possessions.
Overstreet and her husband came up with the idea of donating some of Gregory’s artifacts after the golfer was posthumously inducted into the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame in 2016. Tom Meeks, the USGA’s former director of Rules and Competitions, made the presentation and JoAnn accepted the plaque on her mother’s behalf. Gregory was born in Aberdeen, Miss., but moved to Gary, Ind., after she married Percy Gregory at the age of 26.
A natural athlete, Gregory first took up tennis before gravitating to golf because she wanted to keep busy while Percy was deployed with the U.S. Navy. She joined the all-Black Chicago Women’s Golf Association, which played several public courses, in 1943. With instruction from Calvin Ingram, a strong player and veteran of the United Golfers Association (UGA), the Black golf circuit of the era, Gregory began winning regional tournaments and UGA championships. She was dubbed the “Queen of Women’s Golf” by the black press.
However, the best-maintained 18-hole public course in her adopted hometown of Gary, Gleason Park, did not permit Blacks to play. African-American golfers were relegated to a ragged nine-hole course. One summer morning, Gregory paid a startled clerk the green fee to play the “white course.”
“My tax dollars are taking care of the big course,” she reportedly said, “and there’s no way you can bar me from it. Just send the police out to get me.”
They never came.
Until 1956, no African-American woman had ever competed in the country’s most prestigious amateur competition. The country was only two years removed from the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kan.), which desegregated public schools. Eight months earlier, a federal court ordered Nashville, Tenn.’s public courses open to African Americans, but in Greensboro, N.C., a jury convicted six African Americans of trespassing for playing a public course. The PGA of America also had its Caucasian Clause, a part of the Association’s by-laws that prevented non-whites from membership from 1934 to 1961.
|Chicago Women's Golf Club Tournament Championship 1st Place Trophy
Chicago Women’s Golf Club Trophy
1961 Par-Makers Golf Tournament Championship Flight 1st Place Trophy
1964 Par-Makers Golf Tournament Championship Flight 1st Place Trophy
1966 Par-Makers Golf Tournament Championship Flight 1st Place Trophy
1968 Par-Makers Golf Tournament Medalist Trophy “Hal Lieber Award”
A set of irons (9)
Complete set of Lynx Woods (4)
1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur contestant badge (Purchased from Zaharias Golf Foundation)
A blue golf umbrella
A golf bag
National Black Golf Hall of Fame induction flag from 2012
Poster from The 5th Annual Ann Gregory Memorial Scholarship Golf Tournament Banquet
Framed photograph commemorating Gregory’s 1989 U.S. Senior Olympics gold medal win
Framed Sports Illustrated article and photographs
So naturally there was plenty of interest when Gregory walked to the first tee to compete in the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur, where she drew Carolyn Cudone in the first round. Cudone, who would later edge Gregory for one of her five consecutive U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur titles, recalled that there “was a mob” at the opening hole. Gregory was there for one purpose: to play golf. She built an early 2-up lead, but eventually succumbed, 2 and 1. Nevertheless, she proved that she belonged.
Three years later at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., the membership denied her entrance to the clubhouse, where the players’ reception was being held. Gregory took the snub in stride, saying later to then-USGA executive director Joe Dey, “I realize the money I paid to enter the tournament didn’t buy stock in the clubhouse. I’ll eat a hamburger and be just as happy as a lark, waiting on tee number one. … I just wanted to play golf.”
Play she did, reaching the third round of that Women’s Amateur before dropping a 6-and-4 decision to Diana Hoke.
A year later in Tulsa, Okla., a hotel manager refused to honor a reservation made by Gregory and her husband, forcing the couple to stay at an all-black hotel with no air conditioning. Another time, a competitor mistook Gregory, dressed in an all-white outfit, for a hotel maid. She later apologized for the gaffe, and none of these incidents derailed Gregory’s quest to play against the best.
“She set the example that as long as you have the opportunity and desire, your dreams can come true,” said Overstreet. “It just takes discipline, dedication, encouragement and forging ahead.”
Although Overstreet traveled to many of her mother’s competitions in the United States and occasionally caddied and shagged balls for her, she never took up the game. She and her husband moved to Alaska when Louis, a civil engineer with a degree from Carnegie Mellon University, landed a job working on the Alaska Pipeline in the early 1970s. They spent 20 years in Anchorage before moving to Chicago and then retiring in Las Vegas.
“[My two] daughters and I would ride in the cart and watch her play,” said Overstreet. “My father (Percy) was basically her soulmate on the golf course. They traveled a great deal together. She once did a celebrity match with [Hall of Fame baseball player] Jackie Robinson, [heavyweight champion] Joe Louis and [Wimbledon champion-turned-golfer] Althea Gibson. And my father was right there supporting her.”
Since her passing, Gregory has been honored by several organizations, including the Black Golf Hall of Fame in 2012 where Overstreet was presented the plaque marking her mother’s induction.
Outside of golf, Gregory was responsible for integrating the Gary (Ind.) Public Library Board. At Gleason Park, a marker stands in her honor.
“She was a trailblazer and a pioneer in her own time,” said Overstreet. “She felt racism was only in the minds of people. If you were a racist, you would think like a racist. If you weren’t, then you were able to look at the person [without seeing skin color]. People said she was the most beautiful person on the golf course that they had ever seen. She had dignity.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.