Paving The Way For The Ladies

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: August 6, 2007

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — Some six decades ago, on August 6, 1936 to be exact, the Wake Robin Golf Club of Washington, D.C., was formed. This was one of the first all-black women’s golf clubs in America.

A group of 13 ladies held a meeting at the home of Helen Webb Harris on 79 R Street NW that evening. Ms. Harris was a teacher and wife of a prominent Washington physician.

Each member was married to an associate of Washington’s all-black, all-male Royal Golf Club, and they were tired of staying home on weekends while their husbands played.

They weren’t trying to get into country clubs, they just wanted to get on the golf course. At the time, all but one of the District’s public courses (Lincoln Memorial, which is now West Potomac Park) were off limits to any Black players.

Country clubs across America were off limits to almost all people of color, unless they were carrying golf bags, shining shoes, or serving food.

Named after the purplish wake-robin wild flower plentiful in the Mid-Atlantic region, the club blossomed almost from the start though not without a few problems. There was some resistance from the men of the Royal Club.

However, the Wake Robin members played regularly at the Lincoln Memorial course, still enduring the taunts of men. They made frequent excursions to courses in Baltimore and Philadelphia that were more accommodating to blacks.

In 1938, the Wake Robin Club pushed the process of desegregating the District of Columbia’s public courses by drafting and sending a petition to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.

To mollify the petitioners, Ickes approved the construction of a nine-hole course on the site of an abandoned trash dump. In 1939, Langston Golf Course was built near Spingarn High School in NE Washington. It wasn’t pretty, especially when players tried to retrieve balls from under the old tires or rusty tin cans.

Today, Langston is an 18-hole public facility that still attracts a predominately Black clientele. Both Wake Robin and the Royal Club members continued to press Ickes to open up the city’s other public facilities,

In 1941, he issued an order that finally did. When the doors opened at the city’s other courses, some members (at the East Potomac Course) were actually stoned.

White men would come around to harass black players when they’d hit the ball.Even their children would come out, pick up balls, and run with them. Still, the Wake Robin members remained and they didn’t curb its political action just to the D.C. area.

Along with many other minority clubs, Wake Robin was part of the movement to force the PGA to drop its “White-only” rule for eligibility, which it did in 1961. The club also helped organize and support the United Golfers Association, which put on tournaments throughout the country for the best Black professionals.

While the founders didn’t have the media-driven protests that you see today (are you listening, Martha Burk?), these women used the power of their presence to bring along social change within a sport that has been and still is controlled by white males.

Wake Robin has carried on and prospered while it battling to end the exclusionary heritage of golf. Currently, their membership now numbers more than 50. They play every week throughout the Washington area along with regular weekend matches, monthly tournaments, and a club championship.

Most of the current members are aware of their gracious history. The current membership inherited all of the clubs memorabilia collected through the years, including Helen Harris’ original postcard inviting her 12 friends to the first meeting in 1936.

This can be found in a wing of the Howard University library in Washington, D.C. Wake Robin stands as just another testament to spirit and drive of the sports pioneers of the past and a reminder to those in the future.

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this article.