Bill Powell: Racial pioneer who built the first open-to-all golf course in the US

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:40

Bill Powell was golf-crazy when he returned to Canton, Ohio after the Second World War.

He had played on courses all over England while serving as an Army Air Corps tech sergeant, and dreamed of playing professionally. Back in America, however, the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) was open only to whites, and when he found himself refused admission to a public course in Canton, Powell, who has died aged 93, resolved to build his own course.

The idea seemed so crazy he was refused an ex-servicemen's GI loan, and no bank would touch it. But Powell was undaunted. He got loans from two local black doctors and his brother remortgaged his house, allowing Powell to buy 78 acres of dairy land outside Canton.

While he worked nights as a security guard, he and his wife, Marcella, did most of the work themselves, taking two years before opening, in 1948, Clearview Golf Club, a nine-hole course open to any and all who wanted to play. It was the first black-owned golf course in America, and probably in the world. "Bill Powell will forever be one of golf's most unforgettable heroes," said PGA of America president, Jim Remy. "He was born with a fire within his heart to build on his dream. In the process, he made golf a beacon for people of all colour."

William James Powell was born 22 November 1916 in Greenville, Alabama, the grandson of slaves. His family moved to Minerva, Ohio, outside Canton, where his father, who had run a general store, worked in a pottery factory. Powell began caddying at a whites-only course at the age of nine, and became a good enough player to place third in a junior tournament open to all races. His status as a star on an undefeated Minerva High School gridiron team allowed him to form the school's golf team, and serve as its coach. He starred at all-black Wilberforce College, where he led the golf team to victory in the first interracial collegiate match, against Ohio Northern. Despite his education, when he returned to Canton he was hired as a janitor at a ball-bearing factory, but became the first black man promoted to the security guard job that left his days free for golf.Clearview was a success, and Powell sponsored countless women's and youth leagues to expand the reach of what was still considered an elitist game.

Eventually he bought another 72 acres and in 1978 Clearview expanded to a full 18 holes. Nicknamed "America's Course", it is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Powell passed on his love of the game to his children, starting them on cut-down clubs when they were three years old. The PGA formally integrated in 1961; Bill's daughter, Renee, competed on the Ladies PGA tour from 1967 through to 1980, and later served as the professional at Silvermere in Cobham, Surrey, while playing off the men's tees in tournaments.

In 1995 she returned as head professional to Clearview, where her brother, Larry, is course superintendent.

By then, Powell, and his achievements, had begun to be recognised. In 1992 the National Golf Foundation named the Powells Family of the Year, and he received the Martin Luther King Cornerstone of Freedom award. In 1997 he was made an honorary member of the PGA, and two years later his membership was made retroactive to 1962, making him a life member. During this year's US PGA championships, he received a Distinguished Service Award.

He died in Canton on New Years Eve, after suffering a stroke. He is survived by his son and daughter. Marcella, course manager at Clearview until her death in 1996, and a son, William Jr., predeceased him. "I didn't build this course for any of the recognition," Powell wrote.

"It was a labour of love. Golf is a part of society and I wanted to be included."

Michael Carlson

William James Powell, businessman: born Greenville, Alabama 22 November 1916; married Marcella (died 1996; one son, one daughter and one son deceased); died Canton, Ohio 31 December 2009.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments