William Powell is a healer of race relations as opposed to somebody who just added to existing scars and he did it through golf to the benefit of the game.
Powell, 92, is the only African-American to design, build, own and operate a golf course anywhere in the world by all accounts, so the story of how he built the Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, beginning in 1946 may on the surface seem to be all about one particular skin tone.
Yet, Powell’s story can be applied to women, other ethnic groups and demographics that are traditionally seen in small numbers, if at all, on golf courses in Canada and around the world.
The reason for that may be racist or sexist, but let’s hope not. In many cases, it may just be that promoters of the game in this country have stuck with the status quo. Either way, it’s a missed opportunity to create more traffic on fairways and grow the game by making it visible and accessible to everybody.
That’s the lesson that William Powell began teaching more than 60 years ago when he first built Clearview and even before that as he was growing up in Ohio. His lesson is still a valuable one to the golf industry even today with a tough recession going on.
Most of the patrons that played Clearview over the years were white, but blacks were always welcomed and encouraged to play, which wasn’t the case at most golf courses when Powell returned from World War II, a time in which the American armed forces had been integrated.
Yet, segregation was still deeply rooted back home, so Clearview was built to “make (golf) accessible to everybody, make it inclusive instead of being segregated,” said Powell’s daughter Renee, who had her own experiences with segregation in her 13 years on the LPGA Tour from 1967 to 1980.
There is now a strong movement to have William Powell inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the lifetime achievement category, a just reward for somebody who brought people of seemingly different backgrounds together on common ground, that being a golf course.
For all the honours Powell has received over the years and for all the good he has done in bringing people together, his main motivation was love of the game.
Clearview was not Powell’s first venture at making the game accessible to everybody. At the age of nine, he began caddying at a local course near his home town of Minerva, Ohio, where he earned money for his family and got the chance to play.
His was the only black family in Minerva, but he formed his high school’s first golf team and did the same at Wilberforce University along with his brother Berry. In 1937, Wilberforce played Ohio Northern to mark the first time a black university had faced a white team.
Already holding down a full-time job to support his family, Powell went about seeking funding and then building the golf course after returning from the war.
“The first nine holes, which was 78 acres, he actually built just about by himself, almost completely by hand” said Renee Powell. “He would borrow the equipment, ploughs from the farmers after they had planted their crops.
“He didn’t have any kind of equipment to seed with, so he had one of those little hand-seeders that you put around your neck when you seed your lawn. He walked back and forth and seeded the entire first nine holes of the golf course,” she added.
It was such a simple quest that did wonders for complicated matters, which is why organizations such as the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, Ohio Golf Hall of Fame, National Golf Foundation, Dr. Martin Luther King Commission, PGA of America and Tiger Woods Foundation, among several groups, have honoured Powell.
“He loved golf. He had this incredible passion. He feels that everybody should play golf. His thing was to provide an opportunity. He thought that no one should be denied an opportunity to play golf,” said Renee.
“Our industry needs to realize that,” she added. “If they don’t realize that, they’re going to find (participation) dwindling and dwindling even more. You have to have an open door for people to be able to enjoy this game and it has to be more welcoming.”