Separate But Equal, My Ass!

DYK on this day in #MoorStory365 that

on this date in 1955, the Supreme Court ruled against Atlanta’s “separate but equal” precept in public golf courses. The case was called Holmes vs. Atlanta. The Holmes family was prominent in post-war Atlanta. Dr. Hamilton M. Holmes, Sr., conducted his family practice out of an office on Auburn Ave. in the heart of the city. It has been many years since Separate But Equal was challenged by a group of African American golfers in Atlanta. The City was no stranger to wealthy African Americans, including the Holmes family. Aflred “Tup” Holmes was the outspoken son of a prominent Atlanta physician.

Tup was an avid golfer who was accustomed to playing a black-owned, 9-hole course on the “black” side of town. When Tup; his father Dr. H.M. Holmes, brother Oliver W. Holmes; and friend, Charles T. Bell tried to play the public Bobby Jones Course, they were told “niggers” weren’t allowed unless they were caddying. The threesome was escorted off the premises. Public parks in the Jim Crow South were not desegregated. This included public golf courses. Inclusion in golf was not on any golfer’s agenda at that time. In 1951 the foursome formed The Atlanta Golf Committee with the purpose of desegregating public golf courses in Atlanta.

The group grew to more than 300 members. The group was also represented by attorneys R.E. Thomas, E.E. Moore, Jr., and S.S. Robinson. The attorneys attempted to negotiate with the city but The City of Atlanta was unwilling to negotiate. In 1953, two years after the incident at Bobby Jones Golf Club, Tup decided to sue the City of Atlanta. In the suit, Holmes vs. Atlanta, Tup sought to desegregate public parks and golf courses and failed. Unsatisfied with the lower court’s decision, Tup appealed the decision in the appellate court in New Orleans.

The NAACP supported the legal action by sending a young, up and coming attorney, Thurgood Marshall, to lead the charge. The case went before the U.S District Court in 1955 where the court ruled in favor of the golfers citing that forbidding African American golfers from playing on public courses was discrimination. However, the Court also upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine arguing that it was not in conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment, as decided in Brown v. Board of Education just two months prior on May 17, 1954.

The Court ruled that City of Atlanta must construct a municipal golf course that would allow African Americans to play on a “separate but equal” course. Eventually, the case would be heard before the U.S. Supreme court.On November 7, 1955, the US Supreme Court ruled against the city of Atlanta, asserting the lower Court of Appeals and the US District Court erred in upholding the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine.

The Supreme Court entered a decree for the petitioners in line with its rulings on desegregation, including a case filed by African Americans in Baltimore seeking the integration of public beaches (Dawson v. Baltimore, 1955). Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin was upset by the court’s ruling and fanned racial fires by declaring, “Co-mingling of the races in Georgia state parks and recreation areas will not be tolerated.”

In support of his governor, Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield, encouraged the city to sell its courses to private individuals (The town of Leland, Miss., sold its course to the Lions Club for $1 to avoid the challenge of integration.), who could then declare them open to private membership only. However, Atlanta’s public courses were officially desegregated without incident. Although it was legal for Tup to play at Bobby Jones, he opted not to.

Fortunately, that never happened because Tup Holmes decided to avoid the Bobby Jones course, where angry crowds might have gathered, and instead took his group to the North Fulton course on the other side of town. There, Tup Holmes, Oliver Holmes and Charles Bell teed off uneventfully, and became the first blacks to legally play on an Atlanta course. “They seemed to hit the ball real good,” noted Hank Whitfield, an assistant pro, in an interview with The Times on Dec. 25, 1955. White golfers were surprisingly friendly.

“The only thing that was said to us was, ‘Fellows, we are glad you are here,’ ” Holmes told The Times. He shot a 36 on the front side, not bad for someone who could have been arrested the last time he tried to play golf on a public course in Atlanta.

Holmes v. Atlanta didn’t end in 1955 but in 1983 when Mayor Andrew Young renamed the course at Adams Park the Alfred (Tup) Holmes Memorial Golf Course. Holmes “played a significant role in the birth of the civil rights movement,” Young proclaimed then, “and in doing so contributed to the growth, vitality and spirit of our city.”

Few are now aware of Holmes v. Atlanta or of golf’s role in the civil rights struggle. But golf didn’t just play a role, it was “one of the first instances of integration in the South,” Dr. Hamilton E. Holmes, Tup’s oldest son, recalled recently. Dr. Holmes, who died on Oct. 26 two weeks after quadruple bypass surgery, had carried on the family legacy in 1961 when he integrated the University of Georgia as one of the first two black students.

Three weeks after the Holmes v. Atlanta decision, on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the civil rights movement was born. But it had already begun on a public golf course in Georgia.

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