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Original Issue

An Endangered Legacy

A North Carolina golf club, the last one owned and run by blacks, is struggling

When the telephone rings at Meadowbrook Country Club, nobody is around to answer it. After four rings a voice promises to return the call if a message is left after the beep. You are more likely to get a call back from the Amish.

Nope, the way to talk to someone about Meadowbrook, to find out if the dream is still alive, is to drive there yourself, south out of Raleigh, N.C., on Highway 70, then right onto White Oak Road past Wilkins's General Store. Turn right before the sign that for 34 years read A PRIVATE CLUB FOR MEMBERS ONLY, but today, with the help of a two-by-four, some duct tape and a green marking pen, reads NOW ACCEPTING MEMBERSHIP. At least it is a hint of life.

The Meadowbrook golf course is nine holes of dusty grass, the kind of place where winter rules are observed year-round. The clubhouse is Frank Lloyd Wrong. The fishing pier isn't safe for humans, but it has a thriving colony of spiders. The swimming pool looks more like a swamp. The two tennis courts are cracked from years of neglect.

In the shade of the clubhouse breeze-way, Sarge Harris, the club caretaker, sits in a golf cart with his feet up, drawing on a cigarette. It's a sunny, humid morning in the North Carolina Piedmont, a beautiful day to play 18. But Meadowbrook has only nine holes, and there are no golfers in sight. Where is everybody? Harris is asked. "There ain't hardly nobody no more, cuz," he says.

The club, like its reason for existence, is fading away. It is caught between generations, between hatred and apathy. Meadowbrook is the last remaining country club in America chartered and continuously owned and operated by blacks. It is an aging symbol, a national landmark that costs just five bucks to visit—and that includes the greens fee.

Inside the five-room clubhouse a framed charter hangs, slightly askew, on the imitation wood paneling of the foyer; it's the official incorporation of Meadowbrook Country Club, dated 1959. The first name on the document is that of M. Grant Batey, his signature scrawled with a flourish the equal of John Hancock's.

Batey, now 71, is a dreamer. He is one of the last active members among the 45 men who started the club 35 years ago. He has appeared on this morning, along with his 34-year-old son, Daryl, and another longtime Meadowbrook member, Cecil Goins, to play the 3,001-yard course.

As the elder Batey tees off on number 1, he describes the club's development, and it becomes clear that like so many benchmarks of the civil-rights movement, Meadowbrook was inspired by anger and humiliation. One day in 1957, Batey and three friends tried to play at the Raleigh Country Club, a privately owned all-white course that was open to the public. "We were told to get the hell out, or they were going to call the police," Batey remembers. "We were mad and embarrassed, and that can be the mother of invention. We decided right then and there that we'd have to build our own course."

In the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead the nonviolent struggle against discrimination, 35 black men in North Carolina pledged $100 each to cover a down payment on 136 acres of tobacco farmland outside Garner. The land would become Meadowbrook Country Club. For its first two decades Meadowbrook thrived, inspired by pride, independence and some hefty loans from the pockets of a few charter members.

Meadowbrook was a casual place where members could play in a tidy little sevensome, each driving his own cart. Meadowbrook was a place where a black man was proud to host his daughter's wedding reception, because this plot of land stood for something. In the early '80s the club membership peaked at 151. But as the racial climate cooled, Batey was forced to call members and ask them to renew. Many of them would hem and haw and allow that they had joined another country club, a club with plush fairways, manicured greens, 18 holes—and, yes, white members. "We watched integration take place, and we were guilty of not being aggressive enough," says Batey. "We did not get out there and start beating the bushes for new members."

Meadowbrook's roster continued to dwindle, and when the board met to discuss solutions, one question invariably came up: Should the club recruit white members? "For a long time I suggested it," says Goins after hooking a drive on the par-4 6th. "But for many years we had a manager who was very militant and felt that if [whites] hadn't let us use their facilities, then why should we let them use ours? I just felt we could always use bodies, no matter what color the skin."

Meadowbrook has had only one white family as members, that of a minister and his wife, who was a teacher at the Jeffreys Grove School in Raleigh, where Grant Batey was the principal. The family joined the club in the mid-'60s but moved out of town a few years later.

With the current membership down to 85, the sign at the end of the driveway is a plea. To blacks. To whites. To anybody.

"People have lost that feeling of making a sacrifice for a racial cause," says Grant Batey. But in truth, Meadow-brook's board lacked the managerial skills to slow the spiraling losses brought on by integration. Diminished membership begat diminished binds, diminished facilities, diminished recruiting potential and. finally, further diminished membership. Batey figures the club needs at least 75 new members—dues are $55 monthly, plus a $500 initiation fee—to become solvent again. He knows there are people to fill the club's rolls, but the problem is getting them to join a run-down organization. "Now we have all these prosperous young blacks living in the area who are into instant gratification," he says. "They come out here and say, 'Is this all you've got?' "

If Meadowbrook is to endure, its energy will have to come from Batey's son Daryl. As a fourth-grader in 1968, Daryl experienced court-ordered integration firsthand when he was bused across Raleigh to attend an elementary school that had only three blacks among its 600 students. Two summers earlier Daryl had played his first round of golf, on the nine holes at Meadowbrook. He grew to love the game and earned a golf scholarship to South Carolina State in 1975. There he roomed for four years with teammate Adrian Stills. The two dreamed about the PGA Tour. Stills would eventually play the Tour for two years before losing his card in 1987 and joining a Florida mini-tour. Daryl chased the American Dream instead. He got married in 1980, had a daughter—his wife is expecting a boy in November—and took an insurance job with the state of North Carolina. He moonlights as Meadowbrook's club pro, golf-shop manager and greenskeeper.

"We have to realize that the old guard, the inspiration for the club, is fading away, and unless we get some younger members, I wonder how we can survive," says Daryl, a four handicapper, walking up to the green on the par-3 7th. Daryl has schemes. His banker knows a noted North Carolinian named Jordan, and there is talk of inviting the former Tar Heel back to his home state to play Meadowbrook—and perhaps to join the club. But first Daryl has to kill whatever is living in the swimming pool.

There are also blueprints for a face-lift at Meadowbrook. Printed inside the club's 35th-anniversary recruiting brochure are details of a new 14,000-square-foot clubhouse, additional tennis courts and a much anticipated back nine. Meadowbrook is fighting the recession with expansion, and for a club already some $400,000 in debt, it is a risky investment.

"I'm very sentimental about Meadowbrook—about trying to carry on and build upon what my father started, for my kids and their kids," says Daryl. "And with so many clubs still not admitting blacks, saving our club is also about keeping alive what has been a serious statement for the black race. Meadowbrook will always be remembered for that, and to keep it going we must start answering the call."

And the calls.

After nine holes on this steamy day, the elder Batey stops for a cool beverage on the clubhouse veranda. He gazes out over his creation. "When we started this, we never believed in the word can't," he says. "The going's been tough and it'll be tough again, but if we work hard, I just know that one of these days...somehow...somebody...something...."

I have a dream....



Daryl Batey is the linchpin of the club that his father (above, third from left) helped found.



[See caption above.]



Meadowbrook's improvement plans call for new tennis courts and, at last, a back nine.



The senior Batey says new blood has got to be found.