Atlanta desegregation began on a golf course

Little-known story a good example of why we need Black History Month

At a once forbidden place for African Americans, Michael Holmes talked about the moment members of his family challenged segregation in Atlanta for the first time.

In 1951, Holmes’ father Alfred “Tup” Holmes, uncle Oliver Holmes, grandfather Dr. Hamilton M. Holmes and family friend Charles Bell were turned away from the historic Bobby Jones Golf Course in northwest Atlanta and would go on to launch one of the first desegregation lawsuits in Atlanta.

Tup Holmes left that day without incident, but two years later in 1953 he filed suit against the city. The following year, District Judge Boyd Sloan ruled that blacks could play golf but only in accordance with the city’s “separate but equal doctrine.”

While preserving segregation, the city was ordered to devise a system to accommodate African Americans. The city’s solution was to allow blacks to use the public courses on Mondays and Tuesday. Tup Holmes, an amateur golf champion, balked.

The case, argued by a young Thurgood Marshall, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decreed separate but equal unconstitutional and sent the case back to the district court to reverse the decision and render in favor of the plaintiffs.

On Dec. 24, Tup Holmes, his brother Oliver and Bell became the first blacks to legally play on an Atlanta course. To avoid potential violence and the media, they played at the North Fulton Golf Course.

Many may remember Michael Holmes’ brother, Dr. Hamilton E. Holmes, who braved the hostility of racists to integrate the University of Georgia with Charlayne Hunter in 1961. Certainly they recall the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared separate but equal school unconstitutional. And yet few remember the drive down the fairway that ended segregation.

If you ever needed a reason for observing Black History Month, this is it. This is why comments by actress Stacy Dash a few weeks ago suggesting getting rid of the observance is so, well, clueless.

Until recently, I had never heard the story of Tup Holmes, and neither had Lake Brown.

A transplant from Charleston, West Virginia, Brown first heard of the Holmes family story in 1999 when a friend invited him to a round of golf at Bobby Jones.

“This absolutely stunned me,” Brown said. “Atlanta in 1950 was very similar to Birmingham, Ala. It took courage to do what they did.”

At first Brown didn’t do anything with Tup’s story, but it nagged him until finally he got an audience with the Friends of the Bobby Jones Golf Course. Three weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., the civil rights movement had already begun on an Atlanta golf course and few knew about it.

Meanwhile, after living most of his life in Manhattan, Michael Holmes returned to Atlanta in 2011 and noticed the course named for his father, the Alfred "Tup" Holmes Memorial Golf Course in Atlanta, was unkempt. At the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, there was no mention of his father.

His family’s role in history seemed to have vanished, but Holmes wasn’t compelled to do anything about it.

When he was growing up, family members rarely talked about the case.

“I was 5 years old when this first happened,” said Holmes, 69. “Like many things in life, you just incorporate them in your being. You didn’t dwell on what used to be.”

When the Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course approached Holmes last year about establishing a permanent exhibit to honor the life and legacy of Tup Holmes, he felt uneasy.

“I didn’t want to be the pawn of white people,” he said.

Eventually, though, something in Michael Holmes shifted.

“I came to feel comfortable with the leadership of Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course and decided to jointly pursue the effort to honor my father at the clubhouse and to save it from irrelevancy.”

With help from Brown, Georgia Tech and the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibit opened in the Bobby Jones clubhouse on Nov. 7, the 60th anniversary of the Holmes v. Atlanta decision.

“This is the result of that effort,” Holmes said. “We have documented this. What we don’t have is artifacts, old clubs or old trophies, but we have the story.”

That story, along with the broader “game changing” impact of Holmes v. Atlanta, is retold in a series of black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings posted in the club’s Heritage room.

Lucky for us, Lake Brown recognized the importance of that moment in black history. Now the rest of us can, too.