William J. Powell; first African-American to own a professional golf course

Michael Eli Dokosi Mar 23, 2020 at 10:30am

March 23, 2020 at 10:30 am | Success Story

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

March 23, 2020 at 10:30 am | Success Story

William J. Powell via clearviewgolfclub.com

William J. Powell born November 22, 1916 is remembered as a pioneering golf course owner who designed the Clearview Golf Club, the first integrated golf course to cater to African-American golfers. He was also the first African-American to design, construct and own a professional golf course in the United States.

The businessman and entrepreneur was the grandson of Alabama slaves whose passion for golf began as a youthful fascination. When he was nine, he would climb over or crawl under fences to sneak onto courses near his hometown of Minerva, Ohio, about 20 miles from Canton to watch white men play.

Although born in Greenville, Alabama, Powell soon moved with his family to Minerva, Ohio. He played golf and football in high school. Later, at the state’s historically African-American Wilberforce University, he played on the golf team.

Even when stationed in England, serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Powell continued to play golf there. His skin color never limited him.

Upon his return to his homeland, however, even as a veteran, he was still denied entry to golf courses because of his complexion. He decided to build his own course. However, he was denied a G.I. Loan in September 1946, despite serving honorably in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Powell then fell on the financial backing of two black physicians in nearby Canton and Massillon, Ohio, to begin building a public golf course. He added his own part of the necessary capital after his brother, Berry, took a loan on his home.

He bought a 78-acre (320,000 m2) dairy farm in East Canton, Ohio while his wife, Marcella did most of the landscaping by hand.

Powell’s dream took fruit in April 1948, with nine holes opening for play on the former dairy farmland. A decade later, Powell bought out his partners and added an additional 52 acres for a second nine holes.

The complete 18-hole layout was opened for play in 1978. Powell’s family, including his wife Marcella; eldest son Billy, daughter Renee; son Larry and a close friend Euley Green formed the workforce that prepared and polished Clearview.

Today, Clearview Golf Club is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Powell once described Clearview, a 130-acre property, as “America’s Course… a course where the only color that matters is the color of the greens.”

Upon receiving an award onetime, Powell stated: “I am so humbled to have people think this way of me. I have had so many special things happen to me, I believe, because golf sees no color. It is a game that brings out the best in people and it is vital to young people. Golf means nothing but good. If you can get young people in the game, then they are good for all their lives.”

Powell said he believes that when Clearview Golf Club opened for play in 1948, it truly represented “America’s First Tee.”

Powell was the third child of six children of Berry and Massaleaner Powell. As the post-World War I economy shifted, the Powell’s family moved to Minerva, Ohio, where Berry Powell ended his business of owning a general store and found steady work in a pottery factory.

Bill Powell discovered a love for golf at age nine by playing and caddying at Edgewater Golf Course. As his own game developed, Powell became a multi-sport athlete at Minerva High School. He became a fine amateur player and was the first black to compete in a junior event at Orchard Hills Country Club (now Arrowhead Country Club) in north Canton. For two days, the 16-year-old Powell hitchhiked 42 miles round trip to the course and finished third in the tournament.

He later attended Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, where in 1937 the school’s men’s golf team traveled to face Ohio Northern University at Lost Creek Country Club in Lima, Ohio. It was the first inter-racial collegiate golf match in American history, with Wilberforce returning home triumphant and also capturing the rematch.

The former janitor and security guard for the Timken bearing and steel company met Marcella Oliver and got married on Nov. 22, 1940, which happens to be Powell’s birthday.

In 1992, the Powells were honored by the National Golf Foundation as the Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year. That same year, William was awarded the “Cornerstone of Freedom Award” from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.

In 1996, Powell was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame and in 1997 was presented Honorary PGA membership by the Northern Ohio PGA Section. In 1999, his membership was made retroactive to Jan. 1, 1962, thus making Powell a PGA Life Member.

2009 PGA DSA Winner Bill Powell Photo Sesssion
Tommie Williams hits his tee shot on the first hole as Jessie Brooks (L) watches at Clearview Golf Club on June 25, 2009 in East Canton, Ohio. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images for PGA of America

The Tiger Woods Foundation today annually awards the William and Marcella Powell Scholarships. In 2007, William and Renee Powell were inducted into the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame.

As of the 2000s (decade), Clearview was the only course in the United States designed, constructed, owned and operated by an African American.

Powell died in Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Eve, 2009, following complications from a stroke. In 2009, Powell was named the recipient of the 2009 PGA Distinguished Service Award by the Professional Golfers Association and was honored in conjunction with the 91st PGA Championship.

The Powell family was named the recipient of the 2019 Old Tom Morris Award by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and was honored at the 2019 Golf Industry Show.

Today, Clearview is managed by his children Larry Powell, Superintendent, and Renee Powell, LPGA/PGA Head Golf Professional.

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