One of the first challenges to “Separate But Equal” doctrine happened on a golf course
It has been 62 years since Separate But Equal was challenged by a group of African American golfers in Atlanta. The City was no stranger to wealthy African Americans, including the Holmes family. Aflred “Tup” Holmes was the outspoken son of a prominent Atlanta physician. Tup was an avid golfer who was accustomed to playing a black-owned, 9-hole course on the “black” side of town. When Tup; his father Dr. H.M. Holmes, brother Oliver W. Holmes; and friend, Charles T. Bell tried to play the public Bobby Jones Course, they were told “niggers” weren’t allowed unless they were caddying. The threesome was escorted off the premises. Public parks in the Jim Crow South were not desegregated. This included public golf courses. Inclusion in golf was not on any golfer’s agenda at that time.
In 1951 the foursome formed The Atlanta Golf Committee with the purpose of desegregating public golf courses in Atlanta. The group grew to more than 300 members. The group was also represented by attorneys R.E. Thomas, E.E. Moore, Jr., and S.S. Robinson. The attorneys attempted to negotiate with the city but The City of Atlanta was unwilling to negotiate.
In 1953, two years after the incident at Bobby Jones Golf Club, Tup decided to sue the City of Atlanta. In the suit, Holmes vs. Atlanta, Tup sought to desegregate public parks and golf courses and failed. Unsatisfied with the lower court’s decision, Tup appealed the decision in the appellate court in New Orleans. The NAACP supported the legal action by sending a young, up and coming attorney, Thurgood Marshall, to lead the charge. The case went before the U.S District Court in 1955 where the court ruled in favor of the golfers citing that forbidding African American golfers from playing on public courses was discrimination. However, the Court also upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine arguing that it was not in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, as decided in Brown v. Board of Education just two months prior on May 17, 1954. The Court ruled that City of Atlanta must construct a municipal golf course that would allow African Americans to play on a “separate but equal” course.
Eventually, the case would be heard before the U.S. Supreme court.On November 7, 1955, the US Supreme Court ruled against the city of Atlanta, asserting the lower Court of Appeals and the US District Court erred in upholding the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine. The Supreme Court entered a decree for the petitioners in line with its rulings on desegregation, including a case filed by African Americans in Baltimore seeking the integration of public beaches (Dawson v. Baltimore, 1955).
Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin was upset by the court’s ruling and fanned racial fires by declaring, “Co-mingling of the races in Georgia state parks and recreation areas will not be tolerated.” In support of his governor, Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield, encouraged the city to sell its courses to private individuals, who could then declare them open to private membership only. However, Atlanta’s public courses were officially desegregated without incident. Although it was legal for Tup to play at Bobby Jones, he opted not to.
Tup succumbed to cancer in December of 1967. In 1983, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young renamed Adams Park Golf Course the Alfred E (Tup) Holmes Memorial GC. In 1986, it was leased to the American Golf Management Company.
The larger battles in golf have been fought and won. Now, we must continue to push for equal access to opportunities and representation at every level of the game.