History can rise in surprising places. Important events don’t all occur on faraway fields or in exotic locales. Sometimes, important events, the ones that make us who we are, took place right around the corner, in places still in plain sight.
Like, say, a golf course.
One recent Saturday morning, a crowd of golf and history buffs gathered in the clubhouse of the Bobby Jones Golf Course to remember a round of golf that had been played there on Christmas Day six decades ago.
Or, to put it more precisely, they recalled a round of golf that had not been played and then, years later, on Christmas Day 1955, went forward under an order issued by the United States Supreme Court. That game of golf helped change many things, and opened Atlanta recreation facilities to all of the city’s residents.
In 1951, an Atlanta golfer named Alfred “Tup” Holmes and a group of his friends went to the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Buckhead and asked to play a round. Holmes and his friends were turned away. They were black. The city-owned golf course was open only to whites. The city owned no golf courses then where blacks were allowed to play. Black golfers played on private courses segregated for use only by black players.
Charles Bell Sr. remembers the match that wasn’t played in 1951. He was there, part of the foursome Holmes brought to the Bobby Jones course that day. “We came to the clubhouse,” said Bell, who’s now 97 years old and lives in Warner Robins, Ga.
“We prepared to pay our fees. We were just informed that because of our color, we were not allowed to play,” he said.
They had expected to be rejected, he said. They intended to challenge the city’s segregationist laws in court. “We planned it. We knew we would be denied the right to play,” he said. “We decided to come to the Bobby Jones course… and the rest is history.”
They did make history. The group’s effort to play golf on the whites-only course came years before the U.S. Supreme Court would strike down legal segregation in public schools and facilities. It came years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, spurring the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. “We were still deep in the thrall of Jim Crow [laws],” said Anne Emanuel, a professor emerita at Georgia State Law School.
Demanding the right to play golf on a city course in 1951 was a brave act, Emanuel said. “It was hard,” she said. “It was dangerous to get in front of that train. …. The courage factor. Probably Atlanta was the only place in Georgia you would survive if you did this. The times were very different and very dangerous.”
Holmes and members of his family filed suit against the city. Their case worked its way to the Supreme Court, where it was among the first group of desegregation decisions announced after the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case desegregated public schools.
The Holmes family case was among a group of cases that extended the rules applied in the Brown case to other public recreation facilities, such as the Bobby Jones Golf Course, Emanuel said. Michael Holmes, Tup Holmes’ son, said the decision has been referenced 51 times in other cases.
“It was a big deal,” Emanuel said.
Bell and Emanuel were part of a group of about 75 people that gathered at the Bobby Jones clubhouse to mark the 60th anniversary of the decision, released Nov. 7, 1955, with the formal opening of a new exhibit about the case called “Holmes v. Atlanta: Changing the Game.” The exhibit, sponsored by the Friends of the Bobby Jones Golf Course and put together by Georgia Tech professor Mary McDonald and her graduate students, includes information about Holmes, his family and the lawsuit.
“We felt like it was a story that needed to be preserved,” McDonald said. “I think it’s got all sorts of really important issues connected to it. And it’s an Atlanta story.”
Just a few weeks after the Supreme Court ruled, Holmes and his friends got the chance to play golf on a city course.
They actually played their first round under the judge’s order on Christmas Eve at North Fulton Golf Course. Bell remembers it was a more prestigious course than Bobby Jones. Others suggested the idea might have been to have that groundbreaking first round played somewhere other than Bobby Jones to avoid a racial confrontation. Bell remembers there were photographers on hand to record the event and said that some people may have shouted catcalls at the players. But he admits it’s hard to recall particulars now.
The next day, Christmas Day, Holmes and his foursome played a round at the Bobby Jones course. And, as Charles Bell said, they made history.