Obituary: William J. Powell, 1916-2009
Ever the Gentleman
When whites-only rules barred William J. Powell from the game he loved, he fought back by building a golf course open to all. When Powell died on December 31 at 93, the Clearview Golf Club was still the only U.S. golf course designed, owned, and operated by an African American.
Son of a general storekeeper, grandson of a slave, Powell moved at age 3 from Alabama to the all-white town of Minerva, Ohio. At 9, he started caddying at a town course and learned how to fix equipment and tend the greens. Powell, who was self-taught as a golfer, ruled the links in high school and, later, at Wilberforce University. In 1937, he competed in the country's first interracial collegiate golf match.
After leaving college early because of an enlarged heart, he pursued a job at Timken, a bearingmaker that did not permit blacks even to stand in its employment line. Powell returned day after day until he landed a custodial position. He would later become a security guard and work at Timken, in Canton, Ohio, until 1964. That job supported Powell's family while he was building Clearview.
Stationed in Britain during World War II, Powell played whenever he could and was treated with respect. But back in Ohio, Powell was turned away by courses with stated whites-only policies and humiliated when he played at those without them. So he decided to build his own course, "where black people could play with dignity," says his daughter Renee Powell, the second African American woman to play on the LPGA Tour. "But it was never a black golf course. My dad believed in diversity. If you were black, brown, white, red, or purple, you were welcome at Clearview."
Turned down repeatedly for a G.I. loan -- bankers told him such loans didn't exist -- Powell took on two local doctors as partners. He acquired a 78-acre dairy farm in East Canton; designed the course; and started plowing, yanking out stumps and fence posts, and picking up stones. "My dad knew every blade of grass, because he planted them all by hand," says Renee Powell, who remains the club pro. (Her brother Larry is the superintendent.) The course opened in April 1948.
In town, some mumbled racial slurs. Shots were fired as Powell labored in the fields. But Powell never trafficked in anger. Encouraging everyone to play -- and to play together -- was his quiet strike against racism. During the civil rights era, some of Clearview's white customers worried they were no longer welcome. Powell reassured them. When a man he recognized as a member of the Klan played the course, Powell merely remarked on it to his daughter.
With time, it became clear what Powell -- who titled his memoir Clearview: America's Course -- had accomplished. He won awards from both civil rights and golfing groups. In 2001, the club was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Admirers came from all around the country to play a round and shake his hand.