A leader in ending golf segregation
Duty calls yours truly, this columnist. Before going too far forward, I will do some “homework” relevant to two previous features, as well as make an overdue correction.
First and foremost I’ll endeavour to give a more in-depth tribute to the late 90-year-old Edward Hubert Lancelot Simmons, whom we featured last week as “A Loyal Man of National Stature” spotlighting him as a giant in Freemasonry, and as a most extraordinarily retired member of the Bermuda Police Service.
The second feature that must be taken into account here pertained to the milestone event of Norman “Mickey” Scotland celebrating his 80th birthday at Fairmont Southampton.
Mickey at age 15 was the youngest of the 49 teenaged Bermudians who were apprentices in the Dockyard in 1950 when the British Government decided to close the outpost. The apprentices were sent to the Dockyard in Portsmouth, England to complete their training. We referred to them as “The Fabulous 49ers”. The vast majority eventually returned home, some with their English-born wives.
About four or five apprentices such as Mickey pursued broader horizons overseas, mainly in the United States. Another in that group was the dynamic Earlston Burrows originally of Sound View Road, Somerset. And this is where yours truly went totally wrong, adding in brackets that Earlston was one of the 15 or more of the Fabulous 49ers who were now deceased. The truth of the matter is that Earlston is very much alive, as vibrant as ever, stateside.
We apologise to his family and friends for the tremendous upset to their routines, caused by having to explain to endless inquiries what was really the truth.
Now back to the late Hubert Simmons. Retired Police Commissioner Penny Bean at the funeral spoke glowingly about Hubert’s contributions not only during the latter’s 28 years on the force, but in other organisations.
He was in other high-profile positions — a founding member and president of the Ocean View Golf Club, past president of the Bermuda Golf Association and former chairman of Port Royal Golf Course Trustees.
Hubert was a ringleader in the tremendous highly controversial effort in desegregating golf in Bermuda, as can be gleaned from the reprint of my column carried in the old Mid-Ocean News dated April 29, 2009. It follows as part two of the tribute to Hubert:
Officers and members of Ocean View Golf Club were finding themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Government had given them 60 days to accept or come up with an alternative to plans to move the course to a new level with thousands of dollars from the public purse.
A third group entered the picture and their primary concern was with the “preservation and conservation of the legacy of Ocean View”. To that end, golf enthusiasts, be they players or members of the general public, were invited to a public forum at Ocean View.
Ms Chery-Lynn Thompson, speaking on behalf of the forum committee, promised a phenomenal informative experience as a panel of nine golfers related some of the firsthand encounters black golfers had in dealing with blatant racism existing not so long before Ocean View was developed.
The panel comprised: Harrison Simons, Hubert Simmons, Millard Beach, Keith Pearman, Glenda Todd, Gerard Lespere, Neil Simmons, Alan Douglas and Quinton Sherlock. The moderator was Keevil Burgess.
The organising committee had, as part of their archives, the feature we carried in the Island Notebook on Friday April 10, 1998 headed: How blacks overcame their major golf handicap. The committee prevailed upon this columnist to reprint excerpts from that article thinking it would be a useful background for the forum at Ocean View.
In that article we cited how Tiger Woods was making his sensational impact on the international golfing scene.
We turned the historical spotlight on the “good old very bad days’’ of golf in Bermuda when blacks could not darken the front doors of golf clubs anywhere, and when blacks dared not even attempt to play a round of golf in the broad daylight hours on any of the courses.
Their role was to function as caddies, and if they stepped out of line they faced serious trouble. From Somerset to St George’s, if blacks wanted to hit a ball, they had to do it in the parks and at any other open spaces.
Maurice (Bill) Pitt, who was aged 76 when this feature was written and who passed away four years later, and O’Neil (Popcorn) Virgil, then 75, virtually grew up on the golf links. They have enough memories about those times to fill a book. Like scores of their contemporaries, and the generation before them, they started out as caddies at age 12 on the neighbourhood golf course. Belmont was the links for Virgil, a regular kid from South Shore, Warwick. Bearing in mind that golf carts were an invention yet to come, caddies were very much in demand. Kids wanting to make a hustle and have a few pennies or dollars and cents in their pockets either sold newspapers and rum bottles or they gravitated to the golf courses.
The really smart ones survived and, like Bill Pitt, made it a profession. He combined it with his lifelong career in the hospitality industry. He was the man who took the initiative, along with Erskine Dayton Simons and the late George Lowe, and secured Ocean View Golf Club for blacks.
For O’Neil Virgil, caddying was a hobby and a stepping stone to a wider horizon. He learned the mason’s trade, and became one of the country’s leading builders. He built the original National Stadium at Prospect, the Catholic Round Church in Smith’s, as well as the 31 apartments that made up the nearby Cloverdale Estate.
Bermuda was notoriously segregated until the Theatre Boycott in 1959 resulted in desegregation of theatres, hotels, restaurants, and other public places. Aside from the hotels, the golf, tennis and beach clubs were the areas where Bermuda’s unwritten lily white rules most fanatically applied. Blacks, no matter what their social, professional or financial status, were neither invited nor welcome. And if they had any business to transact at hotels or clubs, entry had to be gained via the back door.
Because Bill Pitt worked in the hotel industry, either as a waiter, bartender or dining room captain, he was able to see first-hand how effectively the rules of segregation and discrimination were enforced.
“If one thought they discriminated against blacks, they ought to know the attitude of clubs and hotels towards Jews,” Pitt remarked. And as far as the Portuguese were concerned, they were definitely a “no no’’. Being the gardeners and menial workers around the hotels and clubs, they were regarded as rejects like the blacks.
Back to the caddies! Obviously the operators of the golf courses realised somewhere along the line that it was in their symbiotic interest to make concessions to them, if only for the purpose of enabling them to become “better boys” at caddying (and here we are talking about grown men).
So they turned a blind eye to any of them who were prepared to get up at four or five o’clock in the morning and play a round from daybreak and be off the course before 9am, when the regular guests and members usually began their day.
Virgil called this “running golf”. They literally had to run around the course to complete their rounds before the cut-off time. Even under these constraints, he said the fellows regularly turned in some excellent scores of six, seven and eight under par. Imagine what it would have been like, he said, if they had the benefit of time and concentration. There was another restriction blacks found most irksome, which was that they play only up to the 17th hole. They were barred from playing the 18th hole, because, in the words of O’Neil, “that would put us too close to the front door”.
He said he was told of one incident when all hell broke loose. It was when a group of blacks trying to bring a competition among themselves to a logical conclusion, ventured to play the 18th hole and were confronted by the furious white management who called in the police.
Despite their unnatural handicaps, Virgil said some great golfers emerged from that period like William DeShields of Cedar Hill (who died in 1998), Rusty Kennedy, Earl Anderson, Roger Liburd, Herman Santucci, Earl Lowe and two Portuguese, Louis Moniz and “Joe Burner” DaCosta.
Blacks in the United States were in a similar position to their brothers in Bermuda as far as opportunities to access golf courses were concerned. But there were tournaments they were able to organise, one of which was the Joe Louis Open. Joe Louis was then the world heavyweight boxing champion known as the “Brown Bomber”.
His Bermuda connection began when at the height of his fame, his wife Marva Louis came here and spent a highly publicised vacation at the Burrows’ guest house in Southampton.
Also, a young Bermudian known as Louis Rafael (Kid) Corbin, who divided his time between here and the States, got to know Joe Louis and ended up teaching Joe Louis some of the fine points about golf. Corbin, incidentally, was a golfing fanatic who perfected his game as a caddie at the St George’s Golf Course.
He also had a flair for journalism, and published a paper called Snooping Around which was a gossip sheet of the Walter Winchell variety. Corbin, I was told, opened the door for the best of his Bermudian compatriots to enter the Joe Louis tournament. Bill Pitt was one of the first to enter. Other regular participants included Herman Santucci Bascome, Earl and George Lowe and, of course, Kid Corbin. Returning home in 1949 from competing in Detroit, Bill said he was completely fed up with having to rise at four and five in the morning to play on local courses. He realised the Prospect Garrison was being phased out by the British Government, and their links there which were leased to businessman Frank Wilson were falling in disrepair. Pitt lived next to lawyer David Tucker, who was a Member of Parliament.
They discussed the idea of accessing that course. As a result of representations he made to Brigadier Arden, the blacks were given a lease to the property. The Portuguese community was also making efforts for the lease at the same time. The first thing they did was build a wooden clubhouse.
When that building was destroyed by fire of suspicious origin, they put up another wooden structure, and that too was set on fire. Finally, they acquired a stone building which stamped them forever on the Bermuda map.
By now the ranks of the three prime movers, Bill, Dayton and George Lowe, swelled.
They, with the likes of Horace Tucker, Jiggs Todd, Vernon Lowe (an AME presiding elder in Long Island, New York), Cyril Smith, Lew DeRosa, Hubert Simmons and Harrison Simons and others, helped put Ocean View on an irreversible course.