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The vanishing history of Jefferson Park Golf, part III: Golfing Clubs and Champions: United by the right to compete

September 4th, 2012 at 5:55 am | Posted by BHB Admin

A 1920s golfer at Jefferson Park. Photo by Asahel Curtis, courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

This is the third in a series of three articles on the current plans and process to demolish the Jefferson Park Golf Clubhouse. See Part I here, and Part II here.

by Mark Holland and Mira Latoszek

The Jefferson Park Golf Club

The first club associated with a public golf course in Seattle formed at Jefferson Park in 1917. The main purpose of forming the Jefferson Park Golf Club was to provide opportunity for participation in golf tournaments for golfers who could not afford to join private golf course clubs. Most golf courses were private and golf tournaments were only open to club members, and members of other private golf course clubs. As a result, without club membership, lower income golfers could not compete in tournaments. For the first time in Seattle, the Jefferson Park Golf Club gave working class Seattle golfers the opportunity to compete in tournaments on both public and private golf courses.

The golfing clubs that operated out of Seattle’s public courses were private, even though they carried the names of the Seattle municipal golf courses in their titles. Although the Jefferson Park Golf Club provided opportunity for golfers to enter tournaments, not all Seattle citizens were welcome to join the Club. Everyone was welcome to play golf at Jefferson Park, but the Jefferson Park Golf Club was open to white golfers only. Because the golf clubs controlled the tournaments, minority golfers could not enter contests held on Seattle’s municipal golf courses.

Racial discrimination in sports and denial of access to public facilities began to unravel in the late 1940s when a series of Supreme Court decisions overturned many local and state discriminatory policies. In response, many southern states enacted new racial discrimination laws in a desperate bid to maintain Jim Crow. As the battle raged between the Federal anti- and State pro- discrimination forces, on December 5, 1946 President Truman signed Executive Order 9808, establishing the first President’s Committee on Civil Rights.

On a local level, many Americans began to form organizations to directly confront the racial discrimination they faced in their own lives. In South Seattle, golfers were some of the first citizens to join the front lines in what would turn out to be an epic decades-long battle against institutionalized racial discrimination across the U.S. and in Seattle.

The Fir State Golf Club and the Cascade Golf Club

In 1947, a racially-diverse group of fifteen Jefferson Park golfers formed the Fir State Golf Club. Like the earlier Jefferson Park Golf Club, the Fir State Golf Club was created to to give more golfers an opportunity to compete in tournaments. Tired of waiting for the Seattle Parks Department to make the Jefferson Park Golf Club change their discriminatory policies, these determined golfers became some of the earliest heroes in the fight for equality and racial justice in Seattle.

Although the Jefferson Park Golf Course was the home of the Fir State Golf Club, members still could not compete in tournaments controlled by the Jefferson Park Golf Club. Determined to compete, members of the Fir State Golf Club often traveled to Portland and other cities to participate in tournaments on public courses, where racial discrimination policies were abandoned in the late 1940s.

Founding member Henderson Quinn on the history of the Fir State Golf Club:

“The Fir State Golf Club was born out of ignorance, bigotry and racism. In 1947, World War II had only recently ended, and the official classification for Black Americans was still Negro or Colored. Rosa Parks had not yet been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man [the action which started the civil rights movement in the United States]. This wouldn’t occur for another eight years, in 1955. The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution [the Civil Rights Act] was seventeen years away. So, having colored people interested in and playing golf was just not heard of, or considered practical. Negroes were not allowed to join the established city golf clubs. Fir State Golf Club was born in order for Blacks to play on the public golf courses.”

In 1951, a group of Chinese-American citizens formed the Seattle Chinese Golf Club. Though most were tennis players, they formed the club because they wanted to learn how to play golf and to compete in tournaments. In 1954, members changed the name to the Cascade Golf Club and chartered with the Jefferson Park Golf Course.

In Seattle, discrimination against minority golfers continued uninterupted until two events occurred in 1959 and 1961 that would change the game of golf on a national level, and Seattle history, forever.

Bill Wright breaks the color line in American Golf

Bill Wright was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1936. In 1948, he moved to Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood with his parents; his father, Robert, was a postman and his mother, Madeline, a schoolteacher. An avid golfing family, they would often practice putting after dinner in their backyard where they set up a small green.

Bill Wright, as a senior in the 1954 Franklin High School yearbook.

A gifted and multi-sport talented athlete, Bill Wright learned to play golf at Jefferson Park throughout his years at Franklin High School. By the time he graduated high school he was one of the best young golfers in the Seattle area. Despite Wright’s skills and membership in the Fir State Golf Club, he could not enter tournaments sponsored by the Jefferson Park Golf Club. Up until the age of seventeen, tournaments on Seattle’s public golf courses were open to all races. After the age of seventeen, entry in tournaments required membership in a club. Those who wished to join required a sponsor, but club rules barred members from sponsoring non-white golfers.

Despite all obstacles, Wright was determined to win. Like the members of the Fir State and Cascade Golf Clubs before him, Wright persevered, honing his skills and entering tournaments on public courses outside Seattle. He soon built up enough victories to enter the tournament that would change the game of golf nationwide.

On July 18, 1959, at the age of 23, Bill Wright became the first African American golfer to win the United States Golf Association (USGA) U.S. Public Links tournament at the Welshire Golf Course in Denver, Colorado.

Madeline Wright wrote a letter to her son after his victory that began with these words:

“TO A CHAMPION: You are now a national champion with all the glory and fanfare, but with all the responsibilities. Responsibilities to yourself and to the world.”

Bill Wright’s Public Links title qualified him for entry in another USGA tournament. On September 14, 1959, he came in second place in the National Amateur Golf Championship, at the Broadmoor Country Club in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Although Wright did not win the second contest, he became the first African-American to win a USGA-sponsored event (the Public Links Championship), and the first to compete in the National Amateur Championship.

The Seattle Daily Times paid close attention to Bill Wright’s progress.

“Wright Wins US Public-Links Crown” (July 19, 1959)
“New Park Board Study of Public-Links Use Promised” (Sep 10, 1959)
“Tee Talk: Wright’s Advent is a Milestone in Golf” (Sep 13, 1959)
“Wright Opens Quest For Amateur Crown” (Sep 13, 1959)
“Knowles Ousts Wright in Amateur” (Sep 14, 1959)
“2nd Golf Title in a Year: Wright Adds Collegiate Crown” (Jun 11, 1960)

Bill Wright’s alma mater, Western Washington University, featured him on the cover of their alumni magazine in 2009.

Wright went on to win other golf titles and graduated from Western Washington State University with a teaching degree. He moved to California with his wife, Ceta, becoming a teacher and owner of car dealerships. He is a golf pro at the Lakes at El Segundo golf course near Los Angeles, where he taught golf for over 25 years.

On October 10, 2009, the Jefferson Park Golf Course hosted “Bill Wright Day” to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of his historic victory. Wright was the guest of honor for the day.

After Bill Wright broke the color barrier in golf, the stubborn remnants of racial discrimination on America’s public golf courses began to dissipate. Unfortunately, some cities, like Seattle, clung to their discriminatory policies with tactics far more subtle than the overt approach of the southern Jim Crow states.

Robert and Madeline Wright battle the Seattle Parks Department

As Bill Wright did battle on the golf course, his parents directly confronted the racial discrimination policies of the Seattle Parks Department in the Parks Board and through the State. Robert Wright officially challenged the racial discrimination policies of the private golf clubs by charging the Seattle Parks Board with a complaint to the State Board Against Discrimination (“State Board to Act On Complaint By Negro Golfer”, Seattle Daily Times, May 3, 1961) on May 3, 1961.

The complaint charged the Parks department with allowing the private white only golf clubs to discriminate against non-white golfers. Robert Wright’s application to the West Seattle Golf Club was denied even though he had sponsorship from a member. At issue was the use of Seattle public golf course names in the title of the golf clubs. The association with the municipal course name in the club title made the city governement appear liable. This charge resulted in the Parks Department instructing the golfing clubs to either stop discriminating or change their names.

In response, the Jefferson Park Golf Club changed to The Beacon Hill Golf Club, and the West Seattle Golf Club became the Bayview Golf Club. With the city no longer liable, the private clubs could continue to discriminate.

Governor Rosellini intervenes

Tired of Seattle’s leadership stalling and not satisfied with a mere name change, the State Anti-Discrimination Board voted 3-2 on May 4, 1961 to send a plea for Governor Rossellini to intervene. The Board charged the Seattle Parks Department with “willful violation” of the rights of Robert Wright.

On November 8, 1961, Governor Rosellini called for a full investigation (“Rosellini Asks Probe Of Race Ban In Golf Here”, Seattle Daily Times, Nov 8, 1961) of reported discrimination against non-white players in golf tournaments played on Seattle’s public courses. Governor Rosellini said:

“I am disappointed that the City of Seattle Park Board has not been able to stop this practice by carrying out its’ agreement. Discriminatory policies against minorities in the State of Washington are indefensible.”

Despite the serious nature of the charges, Mayor Gordon Clinton and the Seattle Park Board failed to respond to them.

A series of newspaper headlines from the Seattle Daily Times tells the story:

“State Board to Act On Complaint By Negro Golfer” (May 3, 1961)
“Governor Gets Plea For Negro Golfer” (May 4, 1961)
“Rosellini Asks Probe Of Race Ban In Golf Here” (Nov 8, 1961)

An excellent golfer in his own right, Robert Wright went on to qualify for and compete in the U.S. Public Links championship in 1963, four years after his son won the same USGA title.

The aftermath

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in public accomodations, overturning many municipal and state discriminatory laws. In response, across the country, many private clubs associated with public facilities changed their names to continue discriminatory policies.

It is unclear exactly when the Seattle golfing clubs stopped discriminating against minority golfers, or if the Seattle Parks Board responded to the Governor. Robert Wright told his son as late as 1968 that the clubs still practiced discrimination. Eventually, the golf clubs changed back to include the names of the associated golf course. The Bayview Golf Club once again became the West Seattle Golf Club, and the Beacon Hill Golf Club changed back to the Jefferson Park Golf Club.

The next generation: Fred Couples

Fred Couples. Photo by Steven Newton, via Creative Commons/Flickr.

In 1959, the same year Bill Wright achieved his historic win, Fred Couples was born in Seattle. A Beacon Hill resident and graduate of O’Dea High School, Couples grew up learning to play golf at Jefferson Park.

Earning the name “Boom! Boom!” for his powerful and accurate drives, he is the most successful pro golfer to emerge from the Jefferson Park Golf Course. Throughout his long professional career, Fred Couples won many prestigious golf titles and was a top-seeded golfer throughout the 1990s. He continues to compete in seniors’ tournaments.

Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course today

Today, Jefferson Park is the most racially-integrated public golf course in Seattle. Golfers of all races share the course and clubhouse equally and without conflict. The Jefferson Park Golf Clubhouse represents a time and a place where Seattle worked out serious social, cultural, racial, and political problems without a single punch thrown or shot fired—except from the end of a 9 iron.

The classic “Olmstedian,” Tom Bendelow-designed, 18-hole course and the Archibald N. Torbitt Clubhouse are a matched set that stood the test of time and served Seattle well for almost a century. The story of that century gives Jefferson Park and Beacon Hill a special place in Seattle history and culture that cannot be duplicated.

On the 100-year anniversary of the Olmsted Brothers’ 1912 Preliminary Plan for Jefferson Park, the Seattle Parks Department declared they can demolish this unique piece of South Seattle history. Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams’ cover letter to the Seattle Landmarks nomination for the clubhouse claims that there is no “important” person or event associated with the clubhouse and “no connection” to the diverse community of Beacon Hill. If the clubhouse is demolished, that cover letter and flawed nomination will become the epitaph of Jefferson Park golf history.

West Seattle and South Seattle golf history

In 2011, the Seattle Parks Department tried to convince golfers and the community to accept a new golf driving range on the West Seattle Golf Course. Although golfers asked for the driving range in the Golf Master Planning process (2008-2009), they changed their minds when they saw how the design would radically alter the historical integrity of the golf course. It made them reconsider the value of their history and they decided it was worth saving. After much public pressure, Seattle Parks Superintendent Christopher Williams cancelled the driving range project. The historic golf clubhouse will be restored to original condition, preserving West Seattle golf history for future generations.

What makes West Seattle golf history so much more important than Jefferson Park golf history? Why preserve one and not the other? On September 12, 2012, the City Council should answer these questions before they vote against or for “concept approval” of the new plan for the Jefferson Park Municipal Golf Course.

Mark Holland and Mira Latoszek are long time Beacon Hill residents, founding members of the Jefferson Park Alliance (JPA), and both served on the Jefferson Park Planning Committee (JPPC) during the North Beacon Hill Neighborhood planning process from 1998-2000. Mira is a co-author of Seattle’s Beacon Hill.

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