August 12, 2017
Every weekend, America ends up arguing about golf. Does Donald Trump golf more than Barack Obama did as president? (Yes.) Does Donald Trump golf more than he promised he would? (Yes.) Does it matter? (Not nearly as much as other things do.)
But there’s something deeper to this presidential scramble: One of our golfers-in-chief is white, but one is black. It’s worth considering how race intersects with one of America’s more privileged pastimes.
In a new book, “Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf,” historian Lane Demas shows the legacy of African Americans on the links is longer and deeper than we might expect.
Ideas Craig Fehrman reached Demas by phone at his office at Central Michigan University. Below is an edited excerpt.
Q:The first golf club opened outside of the United Kingdom was in South Carolina in 1786. What was the game like back then?
A: Our modern notion of golf is that it’s a spacially isolated activity. But early golf had makeshift courses in shared public parks, where people would hit golf balls at flags and holes they’d fashioned themselves. We know that in those parks people relied on their slaves when engaging in picnicking or other amusements. So we can imagine that the same was likely true for the few individuals who hit golf balls. They might have had their slaves carry the equipment, retrieve a ball hit into the woods, or make the holes in the aound to serve as the rudimentary course.nt
Q: Golf became broadly popular in the late 19th century, which led to more gadgets like one invented by a Bostonian, George Franklin Grant. Who was he?
A: Grant was a dentist and one of the first black instructors at Harvard. But he should also be considered an early pioneer in the game of golf. He started out hitting balls outside his home and then took to playing with a group of black friends, including a number of men from the local NAACP. Eventually he filed a patent, the first patent, for a golf tee. He didn’t make significant money off it — he was written out of the sport’s history, and the irony is that for a long time a white dentist was credited with creating the golf tee. But Grant is arguably the inventor of the modern tee.
Q: Grant’s circle was fairly wealthy. How did less fortunate African Americans experience golf?
A: As caddies. Caddying has a strong class element to it, going back to Europe. There’s an age element, as well. But in America and especially in the South there’s also a racial element. It was a mixed bag. On the one hand, caddying carried a narrative of exploitation and servitude. There was this popular genre of black caddy anecdotes and jokes. But on the other hand, young black men were advising older white clients on which club to use and how to swing. Caddying was also the primary way African-Americans learned the game and became fine players themselves. So caddying could be empowering and even subversive.
Read more of this article by By Craig Fehrman at BostonGlobe.com