Bill Powell, who was honored last summer as a racial pioneer in US golf more than 60 years after building a golf course while he was shunned by the sport he loved, died on Thursday at a hospital in Canton, Ohio. He was 93.
He died of complications from a stroke, the PGA of America said.
In August, when the PGA of America held the 91st annual PGA Championship in the Minneapolis area, it bestowed its highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, on Powell. The organization said Powell was the only African American to build, own and operate a golf course in the US.
When he returned to the Canton, Ohio, area from England in 1946 after serving in the Army Air Forces, Powell, a passionate golfer since caddying at age nine, was denied a chance to play on public courses. When he tried to get a bank loan to build his own course, he was rejected.
Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball was still a year away. Golf courses, like much of the US, remained segregated. And the PGA of America’s bylaws barred nonwhites from membership, a ban that remained in effect until 1961.
But Powell, a security guard for the Timken bearing and steel company in Canton, was undaunted.
“It’s distasteful when you get turned down,” he told the New York Times last year. “You have a little pride. You say the hell with them. You say I’m not going to badger. I’m not going to beg them. So I said I’ll just build a golf course.”
And so he did.
With financial help from two black physicians and a loan from a brother, Powell bought 32 hectares on a dairy farm in East Canton.
Doing most of the labor by hand, helped by his wife, Marcella, Powell seeded pastures, tossed aside boulders and pulled up fence posts. In April 1948, what he called “this crazy dream” came true. He opened Clearview Golf Club with an initial nine holes and welcomed players of all races.
There were incidents of vandalism in the course’s early years — flag sticks were removed and ethnic slurs scrawled — but the course flourished, and Powell expanded it to 18 holes in 1978, having bought a total of 53 hectacres. The Department of the Interior designated Clearview a national historic site in 2001.
When Powell, bent by age, was honored by the PGA of America, he received congratulations from US President Obama and former president George H.W. Bush. And he was accorded four standing ovations by the audience of more than 600 at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis.
Seated in a large leather chair, he read an acceptance speech that his daughter, Renee, a pioneering figure in women’s pro golf, helped him craft. In it, he explained why he had built Clearview.
“I did not want other people who wanted to play the game of golf to have to suffer the indignities that I had,” he said.
He closed with his credo: “Stand firm. Never give up. Never give in. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t.”
William James Powell was born in Greenville, Alabama, then moved with his family to Minerva, Ohio, some 30km from Canton, as a youngster. He played golf and football in high school and attended Wilberforce University in Ohio, a historically black school, where he was a member of the golf squad.
With few decent job openings for blacks, Powell was hired at Timken as a janitor, but a few months later he became the company’s first black security guard.
When Renee was three years old, Powell designed a miniature golf club and gave her lessons at Clearview. In 1967, Renee Powell became the second black woman, after Althea Gibson, to play on the LPGA Tour.
In addition to his son Larry and daughter, Powell, who lived in East Canton, is survived by twin sisters Mary Alice Walker, of Akron, Ohio, and Rose Marie Mathews, of Minerva. His wife died in 1996.
The National Golf Foundation presented its Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year Award to the Powells in 1992, but Powell cherished a tribute beyond the spotlight as well. In 1997, as he told the Akron Beacon Journal, he was thrilled when two white women drove from Atlanta just to play his course.
“They shook my hand and thanked me,” he said. “They said I have a piece of history here, and they wanted to be a part of it. Can you imagine?”
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