Skins Game

In 1946, black men weren't welcome at most golf courses. So Bill Powell built his own.

America's Sweethearts
They come from all over, driving out Route 30, past the point where the freeway ends and the road stretches over the gentle hills. They drive past the old houses and the red-brick fire station of East Canton, past the faded sign for A. Roberto Cheese. Two miles outside of town, the trees give way to a clear patch of land, where soybeans and sweet potatoes and locust trees once grew.

They come here to see a piece of history. They come to see a golf course.

It's not just any course. In a duffer-mad nation, Clearview Golf Course is an 18-hole, par-69 anomaly: 5,900 yards of Bent grass and jumbo-sized greens not so much carved out of the landscape as laid upon it. "Unlike most American courses, Clearview makes minimal use of artificial landforms or heavy construction," notes the course's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, which was accepted earlier this year. "Natural features such as rolling hills and sloping fairways, varying wind directions, and natural hazards of trees, streams and small wetlands . . . constitute the primary challenges."

Drive past Clearview fast enough, and it doesn't look like a golf course at all. It might be a well-maintained cemetery, minus the headstones.

For many who come here, the course is not the real attraction anyway. Some visitors don't even play golf. They come instead to pay their respects, to give thanks for the inspiration it provides.

More than half a century ago, before people talked of Tiger Woods, of the Golf Boom, of the game's "democratization," a simple idea seized William Powell. He wanted to golf -- when and with whomever he pleased. It seemed a humble wish for a man who believed he'd paid his dues. He served his country honorably in WWII. He was working a steady job as a security guard for The Timken Company. He was an upstanding citizen.

There were just a couple of problems. It was 1946, and William Powell was black. Jackie Robinson had yet to appear in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to decide Brown v. Board of Education, and Rosa Parks had yet to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Those days, when Bill Powell showed up at a golf course, a hearty reception did not await him.

But he had a solution in mind: If he wasn't welcome on other courses, he would build his own.

And he did just that.

For 55 years, Powell has owned and operated Clearview Golf Course. But it wasn't until a few years ago that someone realized just how unique that is. As far as anybody can tell, Powell is the first black man to design, build, and run his own golf course. The New York Times wrote about him twice. The CBS Morning Show did an interview. People magazine ran a feature.

All of which has brought cards, letters, and visitors to Bill Powell's course. They come from all over to see a piece of history, all because Powell had one modest but unwavering goal: He wanted to play.

"The purpose of building this golf course was so that I would have peace," says Powell, sitting in the Clearview clubhouse in a jacket and tie, looking his Sunday best on a Friday morning. "So anybody could have peace playing golf. It's too nice a sport to contaminate."

He is 84 now, a little shorter and a little thicker than on the October morning in 1946 when he first claimed the property. His hair is almost white, his voice low and jagged.

He doesn't golf much anymore, and his children mostly run the place. His daughter, Renee, who played on the LPGA for 13 years, is the club pro. His son Larry is the course superintendent. Yet even in retirement, Bill Powell is no less focused on his legacy. He is out often and early around Clearview. He seems genetically incapable of taking it easy. There is always more to do.

It has always been this way. For the first 23 years he ran Clearview, Powell also worked full-time as a security guard at Timken. Even the laws of space and time did not deter him from his passion. "I would go to work, but I had a telephone there. I could check to see how things were going. Your mind is going all the time. You never have blank space."

It's the reason everyone who knows Powell employs two words when they speak of him: perseverance and determination. "The thing about Bill Powell, he was determined to have a golf course," says Euley Glenn, a friend of more than 50 years.

They've become trite terms, of course, used too often to describe single mothers and injured pitchers alike. Yet if ever there was a person deserving these overemployed nouns, it's Powell.

The determination came early, something Bill took from his mother and father, then passed on to his children. His parents, Marcelleander and Berry, came from Alabama in 1920, part of the great migration that would bring so many Southern blacks northward. Instead of ending up in one of the industrial cities -- Cleveland or Akron or Youngstown -- the Powells ended up in Minerva, a small town in the southeast corner of Stark County. It was a railroad town; Berry had heard of a factory where a man could find work.

It was an unlikely fit, but the family made a home in Minerva. Little Willie's father ended up at the steel plant and worked the railroad. His mother cleaned houses. They found a piece of land on Pennsylvania Street where they could build a house that would fit six children.

They were the only black family with children in town, but the Powells' presence sparked little tension in the neighborhood. As far as Willie was concerned, he was treated no differently from anyone else. All his friends were white, as were his neighbors and teachers. "If you lived in the neighborhood, you were part of the neighborhood," says Powell. "It was that simple."

Yet Minerva was still a small town, prone to the attitudes of the era. In a town history written in 1944, writer Ralph J. Wehner explained the reason there weren't racial problems in Minerva. "The two colored families who live in the town are good law-abiding citizens, who, though they 'know their place,' are permitted to mingle freely with the white population."

As a schoolboy, Willie quickly learned that some people would never let him forget his place. It was a point hammered home by his elementary principal one day. As his class was lining up for a fire drill, the man took him aside. "You know you are a little colored boy, and you have to realize you can't do things just as good as a white boy," the principal said. "You have to do them better."

Willie's world changed when he was nine. One day, a friend, George Tomlinson, told him about a construction project outside of town. The two boys followed a rail spur north, eventually coming upon what would soon be Edgewater Golf Course. Neither had the faintest notion what golf was. All they saw were tees and greens, sand bunkers and lush fairways. There was a Model A Ford that had been converted into a tractor, with steel wheels and a chain drive. Then there was the game itself: How did the players hit that little white ball so far, so high? Willie wondered. "It was simply fascinating to me," he says. He had never seen anything so wonderful.

It was a game, however, that was almost completely off-limits to anyone who shared his skin tone. These were the days of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, and the only way a black man got on a course was by carrying someone else's bag. "We couldn't play the course, and my daddy was the greens superintendent, and we lived on the golf course," former PGA player Charlie Owens told writer Pete McDaniel in Uneven Lies, a history of African Americans in golf.

Even in places where blacks had access to courses, their participation was hardly encouraged. In Washington, D.C., where the game was growing in popularity in the 1920s, a segregation order was instituted, barring blacks from playing all but two of the city's municipal courses. They were allowed to play one course only after 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, and another three-hole course only after noon on Wednesdays.

In 1934, the PGA codified what had long been an unspoken practice, declaring the organization to be the sole domain of "professional golfers of the Caucasian race."

The clause set the tone for decades of intransigence by the game's hierarchy. By 1939, writes McDaniel, there were roughly 5,200 golf courses in the United States, more than 3,000 of which were private. Of the 1,200 that were public or municipally owned, blacks were officially barred from playing all but about 20.

Powell didn't ruminate on his lack of opportunities. He was a kid, and he came to golf by the same route almost all black golfers of the era did -- as a caddy. It was easy money. At 35 cents a loop, double-bagging, two rounds a day, he could bring home $1.40 a day. "You caddy so you had some money," he says. "And then, while you're caddying, you see the game is fun."

He was soon consumed by it. He loved everything about the sport: the course, the sights and sounds of the game. Whenever he wasn't caddying, he would help his boss, Edgewater caddy master Glen Lautzenheiser, pick weeds, shag balls, fix clubs. "I did everything, willingly," he says. "Nobody had to motivate me."

During the week, his mother cleaned house for Dr. L.E. Casey, an avid golfer. Some days, she would take Willie along. The doctor soon sparked an interest in the boy, especially after he found out Willie had an itch to play. One day, the doctor brought him to Edgewater. They soon began playing together each weekday at noon. Willie wasn't yet a teenager.

By the time he reached high school, Powell was one of Minerva High's star athletes. He was the captain of the football team. He played basketball. He and his friends formed a golf team. After high school, he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Xenia, where he played on the football and golf squads. When he fell ill, he dropped out. He didn't have the money to go back.

Instead, he started working. It was during the guts of the Depression, and Powell did whatever he could to earn money. He sold fish door-to-door. He sold suits and shoes. In November 1940, he married Marcella Oliver. The next year, their first child arrived.

With a family on the way, Powell realized he needed a better job. He went to Timken, the roller-bearings maker in Canton, to talk to the employment manager. He was turned down. He went back. He was turned down. He then got a letter of recommendation from the Stark County prosecutor, Frenchie Barthlemeh, for whom he had caddied. His first job was emptying spittoons.

When World War II arrived, Powell was sent overseas as a technical sergeant in the quartermasters corps, charged with coordinating supply convoys for the Army Air Corps. Stationed in England, he came to admire the Brits for their stoicism and resolve. They treated black soldiers like human beings, something that couldn't always be said of Americans. "Anytime you went to a place in England that they weren't friendly, white Americans had been there before," he says.

Spending time in England struck another chord. It reignited his love for golf. Even with the war on, it wasn't hard to find a course. On leave, Powell would borrow clubs from the Red Cross. "I got a free trip . . . I was going to take advantage of it," he says.

When the war in Europe was over, Powell -- like almost every black soldier -- hoped things would be different back home. It didn't take long to realize how futile those hopes were. As the war with Japan continued, Powell and his unit were sent to Alabama in segregated rail cars. They were issued summer uniforms -- ones that had been previously worn and patched. German POWs, they couldn't help but notice, were given new uniforms.

Not much had changed in Ohio, either. Powell returned home with an itch to golf again. One day, he showed up at Tam O'Shanter, a public course in Canton, hoping to play a round. The club pro allowed him on the course -- kicking him out would cause too much of a scene -- but he made it clear Powell wasn't welcome. Says Euley Glenn: "Bill went to play, but after he went out and played the first nine, the pro said, 'It would be nice if you didn't come back.'"

The incident only fueled Powell's zeal to play. "After fighting the war and playing and being invited to play at different places overseas, and being welcomed to different clubs, you build up a lot of animosity when you come back and they treat you anything less than a person," he says. "I paid my dues. What's the problem?"

He then got an idea he couldn't shake. The only place he was ever going to feel welcome would be a place of his own. He would have to build a golf course.

It was, of course, a ridiculous notion. Powell had no experience in designing or building a course. His only training was the lessons he'd picked up from Lautzenheiser as a kid. Nor did he have the money to buy property. Yet he and Marcella began scouting for land anyway, in search of a parcel that would include both a suitable home and space for a golf course. In the fall of 1946, they found a dairy farm off Route 30 in East Canton. It was perfect.

Powell didn't have the money, but he had heard that veterans could qualify for a mortgage loan. When he went to a bank in Canton, however, "The president of the local bank said there was no such thing as a GI loan," says Glenn.

Powell came up with another plan. He approached two black doctors to whom he'd provided lessons. They seemed intrigued by the idea of their own course. With help from his brother and money from the doctors, Powell bought the land.

Rising at dawn each day, he worked until the early afternoon, when he would go to work at Timken. "I'd come home at night and go to bed right away and get up at daybreak. I couldn't sleep too well, because I was motivated. I'd get up and do what needed to be done."

That first year, Powell laid out nine holes, using graph paper and maps from the county. He couldn't afford to reconfigure the landscape, so the course took advantage of its natural terrain. There was no irrigation system; the greens had to be fed by a natural spring. Trees were largely spared. Old fence posts and rocks were removed by hand. The fairways were seeded the same way. For the first few years, he used a hand mower to cut the entire course.

It opened in the spring of 1948. That's when perseverance kicked in.

From the beginning, Powell was driven to make Clearview succeed. Between the course and Timken, he was logging 120-hour workweeks those first years. He would work both jobs for 23 years before he retired from the factory.

Marcella managed the clubhouse and raised the children. By the time they were eight, each of the kids was out driving tractors and working on the course. Bill oversaw Clearview, providing lessons and running tournaments for juniors.

"He was a taskmaster," says Dr. Obie Bender, a family friend who is now the assistant to the president at Baldwin-Wallace College. "Whatever you did for him, you did it 100 percent. If you were supposed to pick up rocks, you picked up rocks. There was no pick up a rock, chat a little, pick up another rock. If he was teaching you something, he expected you to be improved the next time he talked to you. He had expectations."

But he also showed a willingness to spend time with kids. Bender remembers Powell standing under the light outside the clubhouse, talking to kids well into the night, even though he was working two jobs.

Still, there were some -- even in the black community -- who believed Powell a fool. Says Bender: "Some people thought, 'Why would he waste his time doing something like this?'"

Powell agrees. "People told my wife she was married to a loony, a crazy person: 'A black guy building a golf course, for what?'"

In those first few years, people would shout racial epithets as they drove past. They'd refer to Clearview as the "Nigger Nine." Flagsticks would sometimes be stolen. Still, says Bender, Powell "never said anything about how tough it is on him. He didn't believe in excuses. He wouldn't let you feel sorry for yourself."

Today, it is hard to explain or even imagine the level of resistance African Americans faced in golf, even as recently as a decade ago. The professional tour provides a salient example: While other professional sports thrived on the inclusion of minorities and foreign-born players in their ranks, the pro golf tour moved at a glacial pace to open up the game. The Masters didn't "invite" a black golfer until 1975. More illustrative is the 1990 Shoal Creek incident. The Alabama country club was scheduled to host that year's PGA Championship. But when Shoal Creek's founder was asked if the club had any black members, he said that it didn't -- and likely never would. "That's just not done in Birmingham," he explained.

"I don't think people have any sense" of the level of exclusion in golf, says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., senior vice president and national director of The First Tee, a program that brings golf to disadvantaged kids. "For [Bill Powell] to take this upon himself is extraordinary."

Most difficult on the Powells, however, was not the overt acts of prejudice. The majority of golfers at Clearview have always been white. It's been the fact that Clearview has had to struggle for so long. Powell always had to find ways to do things cheaper, better, more efficiently. "I don't think anybody can comprehend the sacrifices we made," he says.

There were victories, though. Ten years after opening Clearview, Powell had put enough money aside to buy out his original partners. It wasn't until the late '70s, however, that he had enough money to buy additional land and expand to 18 holes.

By then, the Powell family had come to be known for something besides Clearview. Renee Powell started playing golf when she was three, with a couple of cut-down clubs her father gave her. As a junior player, she won three consecutive USGA Championships. She went on to Ohio University before transferring to Ohio State, where she captained the golf team. In 1967, she became only the second African American to join the LPGA.

She played on the tour for 13 years, until 1980, when she took a job teaching golf in England, tracing the steps her father took 40 years before. In 1986, she returned to the United States and became the pro at Seneca Golf Club in Broadview Heights. In 1991, when her father stepped down, she came back to Clearview as the pro. "It just seemed like the natural thing to do," she says.

A few years before Renee returned home, Bill was honored by the Canton Negro Old Timers Hall of Fame. It would be the first slice of recognition for his efforts, notice that soon turned into a flurry of attention. A few years later, the Powells were given the National Golf Foundation's Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year award. In 1996, the 50th anniversary of Clearview's opening, the National Black Golf Hall of Fame also honored Bill.

This brought The New York Times to Clearview. Soon People, The Chicago Tribune, MSNBC, and Reader's Digest came calling. Last year, there was a book: Clearview: America's Course, written by Ellen Susannah Nösner in Powell's voice. And that's when they started to come. The letters, the people. They came from all over the country, driving down old Route 30 through Stark County. They came here, two miles outside of town, to a patch of green where Bill Powell still prowls.

"Anytime anybody says anything good about you, after you've been beat over the head, you accept it," he says. "You're glad you have friends rather than adversaries. For ego, though, I'm not a person who needs it."

He is, however, not hesitant to talk about what he does need: money, for the charitable foundation the Powell family set up for research and education. "We want to use this as a training ground for people, to show them that all people can achieve, if they pay the price," Powell says. "There's just something about golf that nothing else can take the place of. You can't fake it. You can't buy it. You just have to work very hard at doing it."

Bill Powell ought to know. He is not just the first black man to design, build, and run his own golf course. So far, he is the only one to do so. African Americans, after all, no longer have to build their own courses to play. "To build a golf course takes a level of resources, and you gotta be able to run it," says Barrow. "To that extent, many people may not want to make the sacrifice Mr. Powell did."

Even Bill Powell wouldn't do it again. Not the same way. It's taken too much out of him. Too much out of his family. Just because he wanted to play. "I would find an easier way, because I devoted my whole life, my children have devoted their whole lives, to uphold this legacy."

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