When the telephone rings at Meadowbrook Country Club, nobody is around to answer it. After four rings a voice promises to return the call if a message is left after the beep. You are more likely to get a call back from the Amish.
Nope, the way to talk to someone about Meadowbrook, to find out if the dream is still alive, is to drive there yourself, south out of Raleigh, N.C., on Highway 70, then right onto White Oak Road past Wilkins's General Store. Turn right before the sign that for 34 years read A PRIVATE CLUB FOR MEMBERS ONLY, but today, with the help of a two-by-four, some duct tape and a green marking pen, reads NOW ACCEPTING MEMBERSHIP. At least it is a hint of life.
The Meadowbrook golf course is nine holes of dusty grass, the kind of place where winter rules are observed year-round. The clubhouse is Frank Lloyd Wrong. The fishing pier isn't safe for humans, but it has a thriving colony of spiders. The swimming pool looks more like a swamp. The two tennis courts are cracked from years of neglect.
In the shade of the clubhouse breeze-way, Sarge Harris, the club caretaker, sits in a golf cart with his feet up, drawing on a cigarette. It's a sunny, humid morning in the North Carolina Piedmont, a beautiful day to play 18. But Meadowbrook has only nine holes, and there are no golfers in sight. Where is everybody? Harris is asked. "There ain't hardly nobody no more, cuz," he says.
The club, like its reason for existence, is fading away. It is caught between generations, between hatred and apathy. Meadowbrook is the last remaining country club in America chartered and continuously owned and operated by blacks. It is an aging symbol, a national landmark that costs just five bucks to visit—and that includes the greens fee.
Inside the five-room clubhouse a framed charter hangs, slightly askew, on the imitation wood paneling of the foyer; it's the official incorporation of Meadowbrook Country Club, dated 1959. The first name on the document is that of M. Grant Batey, his signature scrawled with a flourish the equal of John Hancock's.
Batey, now 71, is a dreamer. He is one of the last active members among the 45 men who started the club 35 years ago. He has appeared on this morning, along with his 34-year-old son, Daryl, and another longtime Meadowbrook member, Cecil Goins, to play the 3,001-yard course.
As the elder Batey tees off on number 1, he describes the club's development, and it becomes clear that like so many benchmarks of the civil-rights movement, Meadowbrook was inspired by anger and humiliation. One day in 1957, Batey and three friends tried to play at the Raleigh Country Club, a privately owned all-white course that was open to the public. "We were told to get the hell out, or they were going to call the police," Batey remembers. "We were mad and embarrassed, and that can be the mother of invention. We decided right then and there that we'd have to build our own course."
In the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead the nonviolent struggle against discrimination, 35 black men in North Carolina pledged $100 each to cover a down payment on 136 acres of tobacco farmland outside Garner. The land would become Meadowbrook Country Club. For its first two decades Meadowbrook thrived, inspired by pride, independence and some hefty loans from the pockets of a few charter members.
Meadowbrook was a casual place where members could play in a tidy little sevensome, each driving his own cart. Meadowbrook was a place where a black man was proud to host his daughter's wedding reception, because this plot of land stood for something. In the early '80s the club membership peaked at 151. But as the racial climate cooled, Batey was forced to call members and ask them to renew. Many of them would hem and haw and allow that they had joined another country club, a club with plush fairways, manicured greens, 18 holes—and, yes, white members. "We watched integration take place, and we were guilty of not being aggressive enough," says Batey. "We did not get out there and start beating the bushes for new members."