Shortly after he took Augusta by a 12-stroke storm in 1997,
Tiger Woods proclaimed on Oprah that he was not the first
African-American to win a major. Rather, he was the first
Cablinasian--i.e., one-eighth Caucasian, a quarter black,
one-eighth American Indian, a quarter Chinese and a quarter
Thai--to do so. The 25% of Woods that is African-American got an
important history lesson the following year when he first heard
about the ground-breaking struggle of four black golfers, three
from one family, to desegregate Atlanta's Jim Crow courses, a
struggle that reached all the way to the Supreme Court.
Woods and his father, Earl, were fascinated when they heard the
details because the story of the Holmes family never did get much
national attention and has now been all but forgotten. Even many
of the golfers who play at Alfred (Tup) Holmes Memorial Golf
Course in Adams Park, a fine little layout in the southwest
section of the city, are unaware of why the course is so named.
But, please, as you get ready to plunk down your money in the
office Masters pool and gear up to hear, once again, of the
legendary exploits of the master of the Masters, Robert Tyre
Jones Jr., pull up a chair, pour yourself a bourbon (Tup Holmes's
favorite drink) and listen to the story of these common men who
did an uncommon thing.
The story begins, in fact, at a municipal course in Atlanta named
after Bobby Jones and includes absolutely nothing from the mouth
of the great man himself. For one who spoke so eloquently about
playing the game the right way, there is only one way to judge
Jones in this matter: complicit by his silence.
By 1951, 33-year-old Alfred Fountain Holmes, called Tup after a
comic-strip character of the time, was fed up. Fed up with
deteriorating conditions at Lincoln Country Club, which was
located hard by a cemetery and was the place where most of
Atlanta's African-American golfers did their playing. Fed up with
Lincoln's board of directors, who refused to spend money to
upgrade the nine-hole course. Fed up with the reality that all
around there were outstanding courses closed to him because of a
city ordinance banning minorities from certain public facilities.
Fed up with how little things had changed for a black golfer
since 1939, the year he was prohibited from competing in the NCAA
tournament because of the color of his skin.
The moment when Holmes actually decided to try to integrate a
municipal course is lost to history. Only one man directly
involved in the story is still alive--Charles T. Bell, 81, who
calls himself "the sole survivor"--and he isn't sure about the
date. But by the summer of 1951, Tup was spoiling for a fight,
and he had a lot going for him. Tup had confidence. His father,
Dr. Hamilton Mayo Holmes, was a quiet man but he taught his three
sons to speak out when they felt it was necessary. Dr. Holmes
also happened to be a member of the Lincoln board that Tup was
criticizing. Tup had smarts. He was a 1939 graduate of the
Tuskegee Institute and the shop steward for black workers at
Lockheed Aircraft in Marietta, Ga. He was a bit of a con man,
too, with the gift of gab. Not incidentally, Tup was a terrific
golfer. He had won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic
Conference tournament three times while he was at Tuskegee and
later was a three-time champion of the Southern Amateur, both
black-only events. Tup's swing had been refined by the immortal
Teddy (Rags) Rhodes, one of the pioneers of black golf. "Anything
Tup wanted to be, he could've been," says Bell. "He was the most
jovial man you'd ever meet, but he had a fire about him, too. You
didn't cross Tup because Tup was afraid of nothing."
On the morning of July 19, 1951, three years before the Supreme
Court handed down its landmark decision, Brown v. Board of
Education, and four years before Rosa Parks declined to take a
seat in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., three members of
the Holmes family--the doctor, Tup and Tup's older brother, the
Reverend Oliver Wendell Holmes--and Bell, a family friend and the
principal in Bell Realty, drove to Bobby Jones Golf Course on the
north side of town. Bell doesn't remember why that course was
chosen, only that it was Tup's decision. By that time a black man
named Kussuth Hill, the son of another prominent black doctor,
had already teed off at Jones. Hill was an extremely
light-skinned African-American with blond hair. Tup had called
Hill the night before and asked him to go out to Jones. As Bell
remembers it, Hill had gotten onto white courses in Atlanta
before, making him history's Invisible Integrator.
The four men walked into the pro shop and reached for their
wallets, only to be told by the club pro, Bill Wilson, "I'm
sorry. Negroes cannot play here." Wilson spoke politely but
"Is it because of our color?" they asked.
"It's because of a rule prohibiting minorities from playing on
public courses," answered Wilson.
"Did you know there's a Negro playing your course right now?" Tup
asked Wilson. Wilson looked surprised, but he didn't ask for a
name, and the men didn't give him one. Then they turned and
walked out. "It was the result we expected," Bell says.
The next day a small story appeared in The Atlanta Constitution
under the headline, 4 NEGROES TEST CITY PARK BAN. Every white
power broker in town, and around the state, hoped that would be
the last of it. It wasn't. Tup formed the Atlanta Golf Committee,
retaining the services of a family friend named Roscoe Edwin
Thomas, who thereafter would be described in the press as "the
Negro lawyer representing the Holmeses." Faced with the threat of
litigation, Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield set aside $75,000 to
buy land to build a separate public course for black golfers, but
the course was never built because the city leaders said that not
enough blacks played the game. Tup collected 100 signatures on a
petition to counter that argument. Still, the city did nothing.
So in June 1953 the Holmes family filed suit in U.S. District
Court asking that the city's segregation of golf courses be
declared unconstitutional. Judge Boyd Sloan soon gave the
Holmeses a hollow victory: He ruled that blacks had a
Constitutional right to play golf but only in accordance with
Atlanta's separate-but-equal doctrine, a popular legal roadblock
to integration. In New Orleans, for example, blacks could play
golf on Tuesdays and Fridays, whites on all the other days, and
never the twain shall meet. Atlanta offered up Mondays and
Tuesdays for black golf. The Holmeses said thanks but no thanks.
With the help of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, Tup and his
father took the case further. But the Court of Appeals in New
Orleans ruled that the plaintiffs had gotten "all the relief they
asked for." Only one step remained--the Supreme Court.
On Nov. 7, 1955, 29 months after the Holmes family had filed, the
Earl Warren Court struck down Sloan's original ruling and sent
the case back to him with instructions to end segregation.
Victory. After four years. On Dec. 22, Sloan ordered Atlanta to
desegregate its municipal courses immediately. There was much
sentiment in the white community to close the courses rather than
allow blacks to play whenever they chose. Hartsfield advocated
keeping the courses open because closing them "would deprive
nearly 70,000 white players...of their rights" and "nearly 100
city employees of their jobs...in order to deny a few dozen
Negro players the use of the golf links." The mayor also reminded
angry whites that the court's decision did not apply to municipal
playgrounds and swimming pools.
Based on comments made by Georgia governor Marvin Griffin,
Hartsfield could've been the NAACP's man of the year. "I'd a
plowed them [the courses] up the next morning and planted
alfalfa," said Griffin, who added, "All attempts to mix races,
whether they be in the classroom, on the playgrounds, in public
conveyances or in any other area of close personal contact,
constitute the gravest peril to harmonious race relations in
Georgia and the South."
Griffin's attorney general, Eugene Cook, weighed in with his
opinion that the Supreme Court's real agenda was promulgating
interracial marriage. The North Side News, an Atlanta weekly,
called Hartsfield's decision "a Pearl Harbor attack" and offered
this opinion: "The mayor had delivered the white man's park to
the Negroes. That is really the lowest one could expect from an
elected Caucasian in the betrayal of public trust."
Isabella Holmes, Tup's wife, says the period following the
court's decision was frightening. "The phone calls never
stopped," she says. "You can't imagine the things they called
us." They got an unlisted number, but the calls kept coming. Some
were threatening. Some were obscene. All conveyed a
stay-off-our-golf-courses message. A number of prominent Atlanta
blacks, some who feared retribution and others who believed that
a rich man's game would never be integrated anyway, tried to
persuade the family to ignore the court decision and stick to
playing black courses. "My family heard it from both ends," says
Tup's son Gary, who was 12 at the time. Some blacks asked Tup's
sister, Alice Washington, to prevail upon her brother. She
laughed at the notion. "As if he would listen to anyone," she
On Dec. 23 the three Holmeses, Bell and several other black
golfers held a strategy session with Thomas in his office on
Auburn Avenue. The atmosphere around the city was tense. Rumors
had surfaced that whites were planning violence against blacks
who tried to tee off and that blacks had stuffed weapons in their
golf bags, both for aggression and protection. The Holmes family
decided that Dr. Holmes, who was 71, would stay home. Also, the
destination would not be Bobby Jones, where a media horde and
possible trouble would be waiting.
On Christmas Eve morning, sometime around 10, seven black men
showed up at the North Fulton Golf Course in Atlanta's Buckhead
section: Tup and brother Oliver; Bell; Arthur Peterson, who was
also in real estate; T.D. Hawkins, the head teller at a
black-owned bank in Atlanta; J.H. Calhoun, president of the
Atlanta chapter of the NAACP; and attorney Thomas. No one
expected them. A white man who was placing his clubs on a pull
cart saw them coming, turned and ran toward the pro shop. "I
always imagined what that man was yelling," says Bell, laughing
at the memory. "'The niggers is coming! The niggers is coming!'"
The men walked into the pro shop and Tup immediately pulled out a
$50 bill. "I'll take some of those balls, and let me pay for my
registration out of that," he said. Bell pulled out a fifty, too.
"We didn't want them to think we had a case of the shorts," says
Bell. The attendant took their money and assigned them caddies.
They walked to the 1st tee and went off as a threesome (the
brothers and Bell) and a twosome (Peterson and Hawkins). Calhoun
and Thomas walked with them but didn't play. Bell, who at that
moment was unconcerned with historical minutiae, doesn't recall
who teed off first.
The press eventually heard that the Holmes party was at North
Fulton and descended on the course. Bell remembers mistaking, for
a split second, a long lens for a shotgun. A couple of holes ran
by the road and some passersby made their feelings clear. "Stay
off the course, niggers!" they yelled. But the white golfers
couldn't have been more gracious. "We're glad to have you," one
man told them early in the round. "It's been a long time." The
course wasn't crowded. The men played the front nine, ate lunch
in the clubhouse and finished the back nine. The papers reported
Tup's score, a 79. Bell doesn't remember any other specifics
except that Tup's score was the lowest. They walked to their car,
packed up their clubs and drove away--into the fine print of
That historic round didn't exactly spray-paint the alabaster
landscape of golf. Many whites in Atlanta stopped going to
municipal courses and joined private clubs, thereby practicing a
de facto segregation that continues today. The PGA of America
didn't remove a disgraceful Caucasians-only membership
requirement from its constitution until November 1961, and it
wasn't until 1975 that a black, Lee Elder, played in the Masters.
If Bobby Jones, who was Mr. Golf not only in Atlanta but also
around the world, ever made a public utterance about the Holmes
family or the desegregation of golf at a course named after him,
it has gone unrecorded. Dr. Catherine Lewis, an Atlanta historian
who organized a permanent Bobby Jones exhibit at the Atlanta
History Center and who is an unabashed fan of the man, says,
"There's no doubt that one word from Bobby Jones could've ended
segregated golf in this country. But he didn't speak up."
Bell says he and Tup had black friends in the service industry
who heard Jones make disparaging comments about blacks. "All I'll
say," Bell says, "is that Bobby Jones was no friend of ours."
Charlie Yates, who at 86 is still going strong as the secretary
of the Augusta National Golf Club, which Jones cofounded in 1931,
learned the game from Jones. Yates has met Gary Holmes and Bell,
and both speak highly of Yates for his efforts to help minority
golfers at the revitalized East Lake Country Club in Atlanta. The
question about Jones clearly makes Yates uncomfortable. "I can't
really speak for Bobby, about how much he knew about what was
going on," says Yates. Later, Yates offers this: "Despite what
you may have heard about [Masters chairman] Cliff Roberts, he was
committed to having any minority person who qualified under the
guidelines play in the Masters." But Roberts is also the man who
said, "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies
will be black."
What about Jones? "Again, I can't speak for Bob," says Yates,
"but I never heard him grumble about [having blacks play at
Augusta National]. Bob and Cliff were both dedicated to having
the best people play."
The golfer who won the Masters in '97, and who is favored to win
it again this year, is black, 25% of him anyway. During a
stopover in Atlanta in '98, Woods and his father met with
Isabella, Gary and another of Tup's sons, Herbert. Earl reminded
Gary of his father, the gung ho, take-charge attitude, the
confidence, the gift of gab. At a press conference Earl announced
the creation of a $2,500 Tup Holmes Memorial Scholarship, which
goes annually to an outstanding African-American student in the
Atlanta public school system.
Ten years after Tup was turned away at the Jones course, another
of his sons, Hamilton, walked through the doors of the University
of Georgia; he and Charlayne Hunter were the first students to
integrate that institution. Hamilton was a prominent orthopedic
surgeon in the Atlanta area until his death in 1995. Today, if
you're driving on I-20 in Atlanta, you exit at Hamilton E. Holmes
Drive and go north to reach Lincoln Cemetery, where Tup is
buried. There is no sign of Lincoln Country Club, which was
destroyed in a fire in the '70s.
Bell, who lives near Macon, is still in the real estate business
and plays golf a couple times a week. He feels proud when he
looks around the golfing landscape and sees color. The club pros
at Bobby Jones and, appropriately, Tup Holmes, are black. Bell
goes on golf trips and sees dozens of black faces pouring off
buses to play courses that used to be closed to them. He follows
golf's No. 1 Cablinasian with a passion and feels there will be
more Tigers when minority golf programs, such as the one that
Yates helped shepherd through at East Lake, start bearing fruit.
Bell plays most of his golf at Hickory Hill, a public course in
Jackson, Ga., halfway between Macon and Atlanta, easy driving
distance for him and his son, a lawyer in Atlanta. He's known as
Sweet Swinging Charlie for the fluid grace that usually keeps his
score below 100. He's popular and well-known around the club, but
every once in a while he's reminded of the old days. "Some folks
don't want to play with me," says Bell. "But the pro here, Allen
Byars, keeps a check on that. Anybody who shows any of those,
well, vestiges of racism, isn't welcome. You know my philosophy?
If they don't want to play with me, I don't want to play with
For a long time, Tup Holmes felt that way, too. Then he had a
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTIAN CLAYTON No coloreds On July 19, 1951, the Holmeses and Bell were turned away at Bobby Jones Golf Course.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTIAN CLAYTON The Holmeses got an unlisted number after the Supreme Court's decision, but the threatening calls didn't stop.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTIAN CLAYTON The white golfers were gracious, but a couple of holes ran by the road and some passersby made their feelings clear.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTIAN CLAYTON The story of the Holmes family never did get much national attention and has now been all but forgotten.