A Talk with Hanno Shippen Smith, Grandson Of John Shippen Jr.

By Peter Aviles
Updated: May 19, 2006

John Shippen Jr.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ.—I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Mr. Hanno Shippen Smith, grandson of America’s first professional Black golfer, John M. Shippen Jr. Earlier this year; Mr. Smith participated in events commemorating his grandfather’s participation as a 16 year old in the second U.S. Open held at Shinnecock Hills in 1896. Part of the commemoration involves Mr. Smith’s journey to find the truth about a club that has the inscription of his grandfather’s name. Hanno wants to find the truth about a club and determine if the club was actually used in 1896 in the U.S. Open.

His journey is captured in a program on PBS, the Public Broadcasting system. What we see are the “History Detectives,” in action. The “History Detectives” are individuals concerned with the authentication of significant historical artifacts and events. Following are his comments.

PA Mr. Smith, let me start by asking you if you play golf and if you do, what is your handicap?

Hanno Shippen Smith (HSS) I started playing when I was 60 and I’m 70 now The first time I went out there I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I asked my mother if I could hit the ball and she said no, I was too young. The next time I caddied for her. I asked her again if I could hit the ball, and she said that I was too young so I said I’m too young to carry this bag and I left her on the 6th tee at Langston; she and my step father, and went back to the clubhouse. Needless to say when I got home I got my fanny whacked, but I made my point.

PA That’s amazing. If anything I would have thought if anything it would be the opposite and that you would have received so much encouragement?

HSS But you must remember the times, and everything that was happening in those days.

PA So you have been playing for the last 10 years…

HSS Almost playing. (laughter)

PA I saw the PBS special and in the piece they mentioned that they felt the club was not used in the Open, but was a club made by your grandfather and a piece of Americana and historical significance. What has happened since then?

HSS Nothing has happened subsequent to that, nothing really. As you know the foundation that was mentioned in the film was established in New Jersey in my grandfather’s name and they have created what is the John M. Shippen Golf Academy as an outgrowth of the foundation…One of the things I have found out about golf is that it brings out the person in a person, it brings out the inside.

PA What are your memories of your grandfather?

HSS I don’t have a great deal of memories. He knew me of course as a small baby, as a small child and by the time I grew up, I was all over the world, and all over the country so I really did not get a chance to really see my grandfather. My mother (Clara) was his youngest child, and they were very close. She would travel to see him. My two uncles Jack and High would play with him quite a bit. They would go up to the country club where he was the Shady Rest and play quite a few rounds with him. They would get there and he would put on his plus fours and go out with them. My grandfather played until he was 86 years old or so.

PA Was there much talk about him in the household?

HSS A little bit. When I got to really getting involved with my family, close up and personal was with my two aunts, my mother’s sisters. My mother retired and moved to Arizona, which put a little bit away from the rest of the family. When I came back to Washington her sisters were here, (they lived into their 90’s) and in talking with them about him, the two of them were different from my mother. They took more toward the education side of the family, which was my grandfather’s brother Cyrus. He was the education type. He graduated from Yale in 1898, and he was their connection.

PA This was Cyrus Spottswood Shippen?

HSS Yes, that’s right.

PA What can you tell us about Cyrus? As I understand it, he was older; could he possibly have taught your grandfather John the game of golf?

HSS No way, that’s a misnomer. I can tell you that much. That’s a misnomer.

PA Did Cyrus play golf at Yale?

HSS No, what he did was come to Washington D.C. after graduating from college and coached the golf team at Dunbar High School. He made his name primarily in education. I believe his subject matter was history if I’m not mistaken. I’m not absolutely sure about that, but I believe it was history. He would take me out as a little kid to Meridian Park in Washington which was a few blocks from where we lived on Euclid Street in downtown Washington D.C., and I would perform and not do what he said. He would come back and complain to my mother. They all lived together at that time.

PA What sparked his interest in golf because it was not a family tradition?

HSS I don’t know. I think what happened I would imagine was that when he was at Southampton probably or possibly John got him involved, because John was the first one, because he would go out to the golf course when they were building the golf course at Shinnecock Hills. I imagine his brother went out there a few times.

PA So you’re saying that John showed Cyrus though Cyrus was older?

HSS Cyrus was older, a little older than my grandfather.

PA That’s interesting to learn about Cyrus especially when so many do not know about your grandfather despite documented evidence.

HSS It’s amazing. It’s been under the carpet for so many years. We knew it of course. We knew what he did in 1896, but it was swept under the carpet basically by the USGA until Thurman (Thurman Simmons, chairman of the John Shippen foundation) and I went up there. Thurman is the one that did the work and brought him into the public eye. Until Thurman got involved it was basically a family thing. Everybody in the family knew what had happened and he did but… Like I said the sisters (the daughters of John Shippen) were upset with their dad in terms of what happened in their life. I told them I did not like their approach toward their father. They took a very downside (dim) view of their father. I told my Aunt Mabel about some of my hopes relative to my grandfather and what I wanted to try to do about kids and the game of golf, she perked up. When we went to the USGA headquarters and they rolled out the red carpet and brought down his portrait to her, then it hit her and hit her hard. I was grateful to the USGA for doing that because then she helped me make a film about him.

PA When you say the film, are you talking about what occurred recently with the History Detectives?

HSS No, this was an earlier one by G. Theodore Catherine titled “A Chippin for Shippen,” the story of America’s first golf professional. It was made about 1998. It discusses the life of John Shippen and the family. This broke the ice about her dad and what he accomplished though she knew it, it had been forced into the background because of the ill will she and her sister over all of those years had foisted against their grandfather.

PA Why the ill will?

HSS It was basically because of his golf. You got to remember that that guy loved golf. He ate, slept, and drank the game. As a result, he was not with his family as much as he should have been. My grandmother got tired of running around all of the different golf courses where he played, and where he worked. They wanted a more settled lifestyle where he would be home. So he came to Washington and he tried, he tried. You have to give him credit. He took a job with the federal government, but it was not his cup of tea, he couldn’t handle it. He went back to golf and when he did, that was the end of the line. I don’t think they ever divorced, I think he and my grandmother just separated. They cared about each other, and loved each other I’m sure but golf just got in the way. He went back to the golf game and wound up at Shady Rest.

PA What was her name?

HSS Maude lee Shippen

PA What do you want the public to know about your grandfather? What should be his legacy?

HSS He started in the age at the age of 15 and that he became the game of golf and the game of golf became him. It became a life for him. He forsook everything for the game of golf. His passion to play because, under those times and conditions because following 1896, things did not get easier for him. He pursued the game even in those times and faced a lot of adversity and continued to play the game and become very proficient with the game. He was good; there is no doubt about it. My uncle Hugh used to say that my grandfather could do miracles with a golf club. To do all of those things he had to have a certain fiber, certain strength to contend in those times. He had to maintain his cool and not get upset and not ruin his game by being upset. To take an 11 on that hole and not have it destroy him; and still come back and come back strong, he finished 5th with the tools he had to work with… if he had a wedge at that time it would have been all over .I would like for him to get greater recognition. I’m sure that Sifford deserves all of the credit he gets and though my grandfather’s picture is in the World Golf Hall of Fame I would like to se more recognition as being the first born American golfer and for his contributions to the game. I’d like for them to be more complete about his life and his story. The 1890’s to the 1960’s was a terrible time in golf for minorities. I saw the prejudice in golf.

There are negatives in every individual’s life; it’s the positives that we are after. That is what I’d like to see.

PA We both would like to see that. Thank you Mr. Hanno Shippen Smith