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Conditions sure seemed perfect for playing at Langston Golf Course on Sunday. The sun was bright, and a slight breeze made the season’s first mugginess easy to ignore. But the practice green was empty. Walk-ups, had there been any, could have teed off the front or even the recently rebuilt back nine without a wait. Over the entire course, geese outnumbered golfers by at least 50 to 1.
A few minutes past 2 p.m., course marshal Joseph “Buddy” Chase sat in his cart outside the first tee box looking bored. He had arrived at work expecting to have next to nothing to do by afternoon.
“Nobody’s coming now,” Chase says. “Tiger’s on.”
Tiger Woods was on, in fact, inside Langston’s 19th hole, where folks were watching a small TV mounted high in the corner. At courses all over the country, golf junkies schedule tee times around the Masters, especially when Woods is in the hunt. But Woods, who is sociologically a black golfer, probably means a little more at Langston than at most other clubs. Here, the choice between playing and watching Woods go for another title at Augusta National was no choice at all.
Langston has little in common with Augusta, save the game of golf and a history that can’t be retold without a heavy racial component.
Augusta, built in the mid-’30s, didn’t allow blacks to do anything but caddie on the course until 1975, when the color barrier in the Masters was broken. The Georgia club didn’t admit its first black member until 1990.
And in its early days, Langston, named for John Mercer Langston, the first black American elected to public office and onetime president of Howard University, was also segregated by design. The course was limited to blacks when it opened on the banks of the Anacostia River, in 1939. It was built as part of the Langston Terrace project, a program under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that centered on the first public-housing development for blacks in Washington.
The golf and housing venture was controversial from the start. Kelly Quinn, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland with a focus on New Deal housing projects, has collected correspondence between the local residents and government officials during the debate over Langston. The missives reveal the anger stirred by the project and hint at how comfortable whites were with their racism.
In an April 1936 letter to Sen. Millard Tydings (D-Md.), L.M. Selby, vice president of the Trinidad Citizens Association, protested that the proposed location of Langston was wrong, “as this section has always been strictly for people of the white race.”
“There is plenty available land for such a project in a strictly colored section in the District known as Deanwood,” Selby continued. “Your assistance in keeping this section north of Bennings [sic] Road, NE and east of Bladensburg Road, strictly for white people is most earnestly desired and will be most sincerely appreciated.”
Sen. Tydings forwarded the letter to Harold Ickes Sr., the secretary of interior under Roosevelt (and the father of the deputy chief of staff of the Clinton White House). A month later, Ickes heard from the similarly miffed board of the Lincoln Park Citizens Association.
“The present plan means that the Federal Government is spending $1,600,000 to destroy ten times the value of surrounding property, the creation of new slums instead of slum clearance, and the introduction of race antagonisms where none have heretofore existed,” read the Lincoln Park letter. “Therefore, we renew our request, that in the interest of peace and good will the proposed housing operation conform to the neighborhood directly adjoining on the west.”
Ickes didn’t budge, and the Langston project went forward. In April 1938, 274 low-income families began moving into the housing portions of the project. (According to Quinn, 3,789 families had applied for residence.) And in June 1939, Ickes was in attendance when the golf course opened.
Clyde Martin, a local black golfer who served as caddy for PGA pro Tommy Armour, had the honor of taking the first drive to christen the new course. A painting of Martin’s swing, done by Mitchellville, Md., artist Linwood Barnes, hangs in the clubhouse.
“Langston is an important place,” says Barnes, an African-American who researched the course’s past in preparation for his painting of Martin. “You could say the opening of Langston really was the beginning of the desegregation of golf in America. Black golfers of all levels of ability and social standing have come to Langston from the beginning. Some people dismiss it because it doesn’t have the greens that people now expect at Avenel, but for blacks, it was the only place we had.”
Langston became a regular stopping point for pros on the United Golf Association tour, the all-black counterpart to the all-white Professional Golfers’ Association tour. (The UGA played its events on public courses.) Charlie Sifford played at Langston before becoming the first black golfer to play on the PGA tour, in 1961, not long after the lifting of the clause limiting membership to those of “the Caucasian Race.” And it was a Langston regular, Lee Elder, who broke the color barrier at the Masters in 1975. (Elder would later manage Langston for a time in the ’80s when he was off the PGA tour.)
The biggest milestone in black golf came when Woods took his first Masters title, in 1997. His third and latest win, by three strokes over South African Retief Goosen, didn’t pack much athletic drama.
But Barnes wasn’t surprised to hear that the goings-on in Augusta were enough to keep the Langston regulars inside the clubhouse and off the links.
“At Langston,” he says with a laugh, “I know they like Tiger.” —Dave McKenna