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Crossing the Line
Jack McCallum
April 03, 2000
YEARS BEFORE ROSA PARKS REFUSED TO TAKE A SEAT IN THE BACK OF A BUS, A SMALL GROUP OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN GOLFERS STRUCK A BLOW FOR RACIAL JUSTICE BY DEMANDING TO PLAY A SEGREGATED MUNICIPAL COURSE IN THE HOMETOWN OF BOBBY JONES
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April 03, 2000

Crossing The Line

YEARS BEFORE ROSA PARKS REFUSED TO TAKE A SEAT IN THE BACK OF A BUS, A SMALL GROUP OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN GOLFERS STRUCK A BLOW FOR RACIAL JUSTICE BY DEMANDING TO PLAY A SEGREGATED MUNICIPAL COURSE IN THE HOMETOWN OF BOBBY JONES

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Shortly after he took Augusta by a 12-stroke storm in 1997, Tiger Woods proclaimed on Oprah that he was not the first African-American to win a major. Rather, he was the first Cablinasian—i.e., one-eighth Caucasian, a quarter black, one-eighth American Indian, a quarter Chinese and a quarter Thai—to do so. The 25% of Woods that is African-American got an important history lesson the following year when he first heard about the groundbreaking struggle of four black golfers, three from one family, to desegregate Atlanta's Jim Crow courses, a struggle that reached all the way to the Supreme Court.

Woods and his father, Earl, were fascinated when they heard the details because the story of the Holmes family never did get much national attention and has now been all but forgotten. Even many of the golfers who play at Alfred (Tup) Holmes Memorial Golf Course in Adams Park, a fine little layout in the southwest section of the city, are unaware of why the course is so named. But, please, as you get ready to plunk down your money in the office Masters pool and gear up to hear, once again, of the legendary exploits of the master of the Masters, Robert Tyre Jones Jr., pull up a chair, pour yourself a bourbon (Tup Holmes's favorite drink) and listen to the story of these common men who did an uncommon thing.

The story begins, in fact, at a municipal course in Atlanta named after Bobby Jones and includes absolutely nothing from the mouth of the great man himself. For one who spoke so eloquently about playing the game the right way, there is only one way to judge Jones in this matter: complicit by his silence.

By 1951, 33-year-old Alfred Fountain Holmes, called Tup after a comic-strip character of the time, was fed up. Fed up with deteriorating conditions at Lincoln Country Club, which was located hard by a cemetery and was the place where most of Atlanta's African-American golfers did their playing. Fed up with Lincoln's board of directors, who refused to spend money to upgrade the nine-hole course. Fed up with the reality that all around there were outstanding courses closed to him because of a city ordinance banning minorities from certain public facilities. Fed up with how little things had changed for a black golfer since 1939, the year he was prohibited from competing in the NCAA tournament because of the color of his skin.

The moment when Holmes actually decided to try to integrate a municipal course is lost to history. Only one man directly involved in the story is still alive—Charles T. Bell, 81, who calls himself "the sole survivor"—and he isn't sure about the date. But by the summer of 1951, Tup was spoiling for a fight, and he had a lot going for him. Tup had confidence. His father, Dr. Hamilton Mayo Holmes, was a quiet man but he taught his three sons to speak out when they felt it was necessary. Dr. Holmes also happened to be a member of the Lincoln board that Tup was criticizing. Tup had smarts. He was a 1939 graduate of the Tuskegee Institute and the shop steward for black workers at Lockheed Aircraft in Marietta, Ga. He was a bit of a con man, too, with the gift of gab. Not incidentally, Tup was a terrific golfer. He had won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament three times while he was at Tuskegee and later was a three-time champion of the Southern Amateur, both black-only events. Tup's swing had been refined by the immortal Teddy (Rags) Rhodes, one of the pioneers of black golf. "Anything Tup wanted to be, he could've been," says Bell. "He was the most jovial man you'd ever meet, but he had a fire about him, too. You didn't cross Tup because Tup was afraid of nothing."

On the morning of July 19, 1951, three years before the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, and four years before Rosa Parks declined to take a seat in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., three members of the Holmes family—the doctor, Tup and Tup's older brother, the Reverend Oliver Wendell Holmes—and Bell, a family friend and the principal in Bell Realty, drove to Bobby Jones Golf Course on the north side of town. Bell doesn't remember why that course was chosen, only that it was Tup's decision. By that time a black man named Kussuth Hill, the son of another prominent black doctor, had already teed off at Jones. Hill was an extremely light-skinned African-American with blond hair. Tup had called Hill the night before and asked him to go out to Jones. As Bell remembers it, Hill had gotten onto white courses in Atlanta before, making him history's Invisible Integrator.

The four men walked into the pro shop and reached for their wallets, only to be told by the club pro, Bill Wilson, "I'm sorry. Negroes cannot play here." Wilson spoke politely but firmly.

"Is it because of our color?" they asked.

"It's because of a rule prohibiting minorities from playing on public courses," answered Wilson.

"Did you know there's a Negro playing your course right now?" Tup asked Wilson. Wilson looked surprised, but he didn't ask for a name, and the men didn't give him one. Then they turned and walked out. "It was the result we expected," Bell says.

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