t.o.b.e.: bill powell – the other black experience

January 26, 2010

First African-American to build, own a golf course
Source: The New York Times
EAST CANTON, Ohio — Every corner of the modest two-story frame clubhouse he owns and operates, every tee and green of Clearview Golf Club, the 18-hole course he designed and built, bears the imprint of Bill Powell. Sown 63 years ago in an act of defiance, nurtured by the sheer force of will of the man whose vision gave it birth, the club stands as a monument to a golf giant who has battled racism in relative obscurity most of his life.

The Clearview Golf Club is on the National Register of Historic Places.
[Bill Powell] received the P.G.A. Distinguished Service Award, the P.G.A. of America’s highest honor.

The great-grandson of Alabama slaves, Powell [was] there to accept it. He is 92, his once-imposing frame slightly bent by time and by a stroke a decade ago. His wide shoulders and thick arms are reminders of the fine athlete he was. His speech survived, as did a powerful presence that emanates from deep-set eyes that smolder or sparkle, depending on the topic.

To feel the heat that burned down the barriers in the days before Jackie Robinson donned a Dodgers uniform, ask Powell about the circumstances that led to his building a golf course from scratch after returning from World War II, in which he served as a tech sergeant in the Army Air Corps.

“I was denied the rights accorded me in the G.I. Bill,” he said, his eyes widening and his anger rising. “I was denied this right. Here’s a guy of color that was captain and coach of his golf team in high school, captain of his football team, and when I come and try back to get a loan, they tell me, ‘Bill, go there and get a loan.’ ”

No local banks would grant a loan to Powell, who grew up in Minerva — a small town about 20 miles east of Canton — where he caddied from the age of 9. In an era when blacks could not stand in line with whites to apply for a job, when the Army was segregated, Powell was reminded of the deep societal differences between England and Scotland, where he had been stationed, and Ohio.

It hardened his resolve, as Powell said, “I had just left a country where I was treated like a human being, so how was I supposed to be satisfied to be treated like dirt?”

He borrowed money from two black physicians, one from Canton and one from nearby Massillon, and from his brother, Berry Powell, who mortgaged his home. Bill Powell bought the original 78 acres he had spotted when driving with his wife, Marcella, down Route 30 — one of the earliest east-west access highways in the country — and they went to work. It was in the spring of 1946, and Powell was 29.

He did much of the heavy work himself, clearing brush, pulling out fence posts and hauling away stones in a wheelbarrow. He seeded the fairways by hand, sometimes helped by Marcella, who died in June 1996 after 56 years of marriage.

Their three children also did their part: Billy, the oldest son, now deceased; Lawrence, now the golf course superintendent; and Renee, a fine golfer who played on the L.P.G.A. Tour in the ’70s and early ’80s and is now the head professional. While supporting his young family with a nighttime job as a security guard at the Timken ball bearing factory, Powell finished the first nine holes of the course in two years. It opened in April 1948. After Powell bought another 52 acres, the back nine opened in 1978.

Standing in the afternoon shade of a massive oak on a hill near the first tee last week, Renee Powell smiled as she pointed down the first fairway of the course, which is one of just 15 on the National Register of Historic Places.

“He and my mother planted most of the trees you see there bordering the first hole,” she said. “When you think about what he was able to accomplish here, with everything that was arrayed against him, it really is quite amazing.”

At times Bill Powell wondered if what he was doing was worth the trouble. But quitting never occurred to him.

“As soon as someone told him he couldn’t do something, that was when you knew he could,” Renee Powell said.

That is a characteristic Powell shares with other successful entrepreneurs. Even now, he will wave off an offer of help and climb out of his golf cart to fetch a club from his shop. He admits he was once gruff, even caustic, at times, but jokes about it.

“I love everybody now,” he said, eliciting a stifled chortle from his daughter. “I do. I just love everybody.”

He smiled and added, “Listen, when you’re walking down that last hole toward the big clubhouse over yonder, you don’t want to have a lot of enemies.”

Powell no longer plays golf, but people play it because of him. Smiling under a snappy linen Hogan cap, he chatted on Thursday with some of the women from the Clearview Ladies Golf Association, asking about their health, calling each by name.

He has made peace with some of the angry memories, but Powell is not content. Still rankled by bigotry and injustice, he nonetheless hopes today’s younger generation will put an end to the lingering differences.

“We are such a heterogeneous society,” he said. “We need to learn to coexist. If you take the best thing from each different part, then something good has to come of it. For all the bad that we have, we have a beautiful country. Why else would everybody be trying to come here?”