A group of prominent black Detroiters spoke to Mayor Coleman Young during a fundraiser at the Detroit Golf Club in the 1980s.
“I know you have to really have fun out there,” said Young, a non-golfer, as they looked at the course, according to Dennis Archer, who succeeded Young as mayor.
“We have all stated that we are not members,” Archer said recently. Young’s reaction: “Frustration and anger,” recalls Archer. “He could not believe it.”
Archer understood Young’s demeanor. After all, the club had rejected Archer’s application for membership several years earlier.
“I don’t know any other reason than my skin color,” Archer told the Free Press at the time.
Young began to push back what he and many others viewed as racism, as he had done throughout his adult life. In a city where nearly seven out of ten residents were black, a golf club surrounded by the homes of wealthy African Americans remained secluded until the late 20th century.
So Young applied for membership. “Of course,” he wrote in his memoir.
The mayor’s efforts were not without controversy. The application became a hot topic in newspapers and radio talk shows in late 1985 and early 1986 when the racial makeup of the club became widely known.
In a letter to the Free Press editor, Marvin W. Smith of Detroit said the golf club’s expulsion of blacks “is a city-wide humiliation for Detroiters.” Detroit-based Kenneth Davies noted the expulsion of Young and Archer, then a prominent attorney who went to the Michigan Supreme Court, and wrote, “I’m outraged.”
Though the widespread disgust for an all-white club in Detroit wasn’t shared by everyone.
“In the interests of fair play, why does the Free Press not identify private black clubs that have no white members?” Asked John W. Wayne of Grosse Pointe Farms in a letter to the editor.
Founded in 1899, DGC is located on 220 acres of woodland, west of Palmer Park on the west side of the city. The clubhouse was designed in 1916 by the famous architect Albert Kahn; the greens were the work of Donald Ross, the well-known golf course designer. In 1985 the association had 1,100 members.
Robert Roselle, Executive Vice President of Campbell-Ewald Co., nominated Young for membership. His wife, June Roselle, was a Young commissioner who ran Cobo Hall. Archbishop Edmund Szoka, another member of the association, supported Young’s proposal.
“This is a golf club in the heart of Detroit, in a 65% black city,” Szoka told the Free Press.
Szoka’s support for Young sparked controversy of its own when the spiritual leader of 1.5 million Catholics in metropolitan Detroit was forced to defend his membership in an all-white club. He said “It would never have crossed my mind to ask if there were any” black members when he joined two years earlier.
Some critics have described golf clubs as trivial.
Given the “greater social and moral problems faced by the church and state,” Pontiac’s Frank McSherry wrote that Szoka’s support “is about as significant as the support of the lodges by the Rockefellers.”
Young met with the club’s board of directors in December 1985 and, as usual, his application was mailed for 30 days. He applied for a non-golf membership that gave access to the dining room and other facilities and required an entry fee of $ 1,250 and a monthly contribution of $ 175, adjusted for inflation. The entry fee for a high-priced family golf membership was $ 30,000 in today’s dollars.
Finally, in January 1986, the board approved Young’s membership.
“This action is progress for the club and for the city of Detroit,” Young said in a statement. “I hope it’s the beginning of a new era for the club.”
Archer said, “I think now that the mayor has broken down the barriers, others can be accepted into full membership of the golf club,” said Archer.
That’s exactly what happened.
In July 1986, Walt Watkins, director of the National Bank of Detroit, became the second black member. Watkins, who was a full member, later recalled meeting Young over dinner in a house next to the club and thanking him for helping him entertain current and potential bank customers.
“I introduced myself to him and told him I was a member because of you and that I was playing there on the golf course behind us,” said Watkins.
At the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the club earlier this month, the John Shippen National Invitational was held to honor the first black professional golfer and to provide more play options for black golfers. Shippen, the son of a slave, played at several US Open from 1896.
DGC has had three black presidents since 2003: Walter Elliott, Lane Coleman and its current chairman, Mark Douglas, a second generation member. Mark’s father Walt, who ran New Detroit Inc. and ran the Avis Ford dealership, joined in the late 1980s.
“It obviously sends a good message in the environment today, with what we are dealing with on many fronts – racial equality and things like that,” Mark Douglas told the Free Press earlier this month.
“It’s a positive story at a time when you don’t necessarily have many positive stories to tell.”
Conrad Mallett Jr., the assistant mayor and member of the Detroit Golf Club, was named by Young in 1986. He recalls that Young did not see club membership as an opportunity for himself, but understood that it does so for his cohorts as well as younger and future generations of blacks and other colored people.
“My father was very proud that his son was a member of the golf club,” Mallett said, referring to his father Conrad Mallett Sr., who was a caddy at a private golf club in Jim Crow, Texas, in the late 1930s and later Chief Executive Assistant to Former Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Director of Transportation under Young.
Jermaine Wyrick, a DGC caddy in the late 1980s and a former Coleman A. Young Foundation fellow, attended the Rocket Mortgage Classic earlier this month.
Wyrick, a Detroit attorney who is African American, recalls when he and other black caddies clapped in support when they saw Watkins play on the court.
It was a far cry from the days when the only blacks in the club worked there. He attributes the change to Young.
“He was definitely a trailblazer,” said Wyrick.
Ken Coleman is a lifelong Detroit resident who has a passion for recording the lives of Blacks in Motor City.