Rare Film of First African-American Professional Golfer Sheds Light on Pre-Civil Rights Era

Jul 18, 2018

At the University of South Carolina, the Moving Image Research Collection has established a reputation as one of the top film archives in the country. Curator Greg Wilsbacher says Newsfilm Collections at USC has received some notable donations over the years—including footage from the United States Marine Corps. But it all started with a donation in 1980 from the Fox Corporation, containing countless hours of newsreels and outtakes from the turn of the 20th Century. As Wilsbacher and his colleagues work to preserve these historic films, they often find something newsworthy for the here and now. South Carolina Public Radio's Laura Hunsberger spoke with him about the collection's rare footage of golfer John M. Shippen.

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John M. Shippen was born in 1879 in Washington, D.C. At age nine, he moved to the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Long Island, New York. This was just down the road from where the Shinnecock Hills Golf and Country Club was founded in 1891. According to PGA.com, it was here at Shinnecock Hills where Shippen started caddying for Willie Dunn, a veteran Scottish golfer. Dunn would eventually give Shippen lessons and developed Shippen into a skillful player in his own right. By age 16, Shippen was encouraged to enter the U.S. Open by members of the club, but his entry was not universally praised. However, the head of the U.S. Golf Association, Theodore Havemeyer, turned a deaf ear to the protests and Shippen was permitted to play. Shippen’s fifth place performance in the tournament officially made him the first African-American professional golfer, cementing his place in history.

Years later, in 1925, the first all African-American golf tournament was hosted at the Shady Rest Golf Club in New Jersey, the nation’s first African-American golf and country club. This is where Shippen is seen rubbing shoulders with some of the younger golfers he may have inspired.USC’s Motion Image Research Lab provided us with the footage of this event via their Youtube page, which can be viewed below.

About Marian Anderson

Shippen’s depiction in film is mentioned in the audio piece featured above, along with footage of another groundbreaking civil rights figure, opera singer Marian Anderson. The director of UCLA’s film archives Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak says that he has footage of Anderson performing on the steps of The Lincoln Memorial in 1939. According a report on Anderson by SmithsonianMag.org, “By the early 1930’s Anderson had already sung with the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall. But she would often be denied hotel rooms, service in restaurants and musical opportunities due to the rampant discrimination stacked against her.”

Discrimination against Anderson played a factor in the 1939 concert as well, says Horak.

“Originally Eleanor Roosevelt had invited her to sing at Constitution Hall. However, The Daughters Of The American Revolution, who owned Constitution Hall, said she could perform there but she had to come through the servants entrance.”

According to SmithsonianMag.org: “Eleanor Roosevelt responded to the DAR, saying 'you had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me your organization has failed.'” When Anderson refused to abide by this this stipulation, Horak says that Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, assisted Anderson in securing the Lincoln memorial as the venue.

On Easter Sunday 1939, Marian Anderson took the stage overlooking the National Mall and performed to an integrated audience of about 75,000 people. Below is an excerpt of this historic concert that Horak says “is now seen as the kick off to the Civil Rights Movement.”