The legacy of love that is Clearview Golf Course
This Ohio course, built during segregation, lives on because of the Powell family
Head pro Renee Powell hurries into the brownish-gray, wood-framed clubhouse at Clearview Golf Course. On this saunalike Saturday afternoon in late August, Powell is seeking relief inside this dimly lit, air-conditioned building.
“Can we get 15 minutes?” someone asks her.
The words make Powell smile.
“Maybe five,” she replies, holding up her right hand, her fingers spread. “You know how crazy it is today.”
“Crazy” is an apt word, because Clearview, a nonprofit foundation, was built 70 years ago with shovelfuls of crazy.
For nothing was crazier back then the notion a black man, her father Bill Powell, would take his hands and sculpt a golf course from farmland he bought in the heart of Ohio. But Bill Powell, whom friends called “Mr. P,” believed; he believed not only that could he build the course, but that if he did, by God, golfers would surely come and play on it.
And Mr. P. was right. They’ve been playing Clearview ever since.
The place has survived in the face of Jim Crow segregation – a black-owned, black-built course that has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. From nearby and beyond, golfers have come to play the par-72 course, golf pros such as Calvin Peete, Homero Blancas and Charlie Sifford; Hall of Famers such as Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Henry Aaron and more; and ordinary folk too – blacks and whites, any man or woman who liked striking golf balls for the joy of it as much as Bill Powell did.
“He called it ‘America’s course’ because he wanted it opened to everyone,” said Ramona Harriet, a sports historian who has written about blacks in golf. “He wanted this golf club opened to the people who denied him access to their courses.”
The course Mr. P built
Bill Powell’s passion for golf began as a youthful fascination. When he was 9 years old, he would climb over or crawl under fences to sneak onto courses near his hometown of Minerva, Ohio, about 20 miles from Canton, and watch white men play.
“He saw them hitting a ball with a stick, as if trying to lose it,” said Renee Powell, a steward of the course along with her brother Larry. “They’d walk out onto the course, find the ball and hit it again.”
Bill Powell should have fulfilled his golf dream earlier, but segregation meant his reality took a while to unfold. He was a black man in the pre- and post-World War II period, and aside from caddying for whites, he and other golfers of color could find little inside the sport that welcomed them.
Not in America, at least.
Stationed in Europe during the war, Powell had been able to play golf courses there. His skin color never limited him. His homeland, however, had been less accommodating. Upon discovering that those limitations remained once he returned to Ohio, he decided to build a course.
Turned down for a GI loan, he borrowed money from two black physicians and coaxed his brother into taking a second mortgage. Powell, who paid his family’s bills with a security guard’s job at a bearing-and-steel company in Canton, used the loans to buy 78 acres from a dairy farmer.
Standing on a hill above the expanse of land he purchased in 1946, Bill Powell, then 28, got a “clear view” of what his dream could be. He moved his wife Marcella and their children into a house he built there – a house with no electricity or plumbing.
As he sits inside the clubhouse, Larry Powell remembers those Spartan times well. In his boyhood, he was growing up with the course, which he, his father, his mother and his two siblings built, as he puts it, “piece by piece by piece by piece by piece.”
“It was like being raised on a farm – a youngster on a farm,” Larry Powell said. “You just start doing a lot of things at an early age.”
Even now, he hasn’t forgotten the hard work. Nor has he forsaken Clearview, where he tends the grounds still. The course is his link to his past, a tie that will bind Bill Powell’s progeny for as long as Clearview stands.
Often, Larry Powell, who would work an eight-hour shift first with the U.S. Postal Service, got by on two hours’ sleep.
“I must have been crazy,” he said, taking a short break from the hard, grinding work he still does to keep the course green. “It didn’t make any sense to do this on two hours’ sleep.”
Perhaps it was craziness – for a man to toil year after year, to labor day after day doing work that might break a lesser person. Yet would Larry Powell have been even crazier to let fall into disrepair what had been a business he and his siblings grew up with?
“The course is certainly part of our history,” he said. “When something is part of your history – our front yard and backyard was a golf course – you want to keep it going.”
History won’t forget Clearview, as it has forgotten black-owned courses such as the Apex Golf Club in New Jersey, the Big Walnut Country Club in Ohio or the New Rogell Golf Club in Michigan.
No one will mistake the course for Augusta National or Pebble Beach or Muirfield Village or St. Andrews; none of those courses can be Clearview either, because none of them is a product of a black man’s dream, the quintessential American saga of perseverance, perspiration and pluck. Bill Powell has too many people lording over his legacy for it to get lost in history.
“Here’s a man who loved golf,” said former Pittsburgh Steelers star Franco Harris, an NFL Hall of Famer who returns each year to Clearview to play in its celebrity tournament. “He was not going to be denied, even if he had to build his own golf course.”
The celebrity tournament that salutes Powell, who died of a stroke in December 2009, draws a handful of NFL Hall of Famers every year. Jim Dent, one of the few surviving black players who followed Sifford and Pete Brown onto the PGA circuit in the 1960s, attended last month.
Men like Dent and Harris ensure that Bill Powell has good people lording over his legacy. Nobody is a better ambassador, however, than Renee Powell, 70, who has written a piece of sports history that’s uniquely hers.
She shares a place with Larry Doby, the second black player to break into the Major Leagues, Pete Brown, the second black to earn a PGA card, and others in sports. In her case, Powell, who started swinging a golf club when she was 3, will forever be the black woman who, in 1967, followed Althea Gibson onto women’s golf circuit.
“I guess I never really looked at myself as being a ‘pioneer,’ ” said Powell, one of seven women given honorary membership at the Royal And Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But I know some people might look at me as such. I look at my parents and see what they’ve done, and I just sort of followed suit.”
What her parents did was, indeed, pioneering – and historic, too. Powell and her surviving brother, Larry, are now tasked to make certain that history doesn’t end at 70 years.
Clearview, one of 13 black-owned or black-operated golf courses among 15,500 in America, remains a work in progress, growing deeper and richer into life with Bill Powell’s children.
“Sometimes I say, ‘Oh, my God, why did my dad do this?’ ” Renee Powell said. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”
Seventy years ahead or behind is a long time, and inside these bookends is an America that has evolved, if not necessarily changed. That evolution has allowed Renee Powell to keep Clearview, Clearview.
“To be able to look at Clearview now, since my dad began building the golf course with the help of my mom,” she said, “this is something we need to carry on and secure it for the next 70 years.”
She has no choice, really. Her and her brother’s legacy is in those 18 holes, too; it is in the roughs and on the fairways, pieced together with sweat equity, their father’s vision the same clear view.
Not once has she and her brother wavered on the vision; not once did their father. For Bill Powell, the first black man to design, build, own and operate a golf course, had never been a quitter, and he was resolute about fighting Jim Crow, about knocking down racial barriers that often stopped black folk from achieving whatever visions they might have had.
So to give up would have been to see his vision as a mirage, but as he surveyed the farmland, what Bill Powell saw in his mind was as real as the racism of the era.
“Did Harriet Tubman give up?” Renee Powell asks.
She finds the thought of her father walking away from this “clear view” beyond her imagination, an affront to his and her mother’s pioneering spirit.
“Some people have something inside them that when they see a wrong, they���re going to make it right,” she said.
Her father saw the possibility of justice in front of him, Renee Powell said. His vision was to change America’s perspective on color – and not through violent protest but in a peaceful manner. As crazy as it might sound to other people now, a golf course free of racial barriers was his way, her mother’s way, too.
“And we have the same DNA they did,” she said.
What’s ahead for the Powells is a golf course that continues to evolve. They want to add an automated irrigation system throughout the course, not just on its Bentgrass greens. They also want to make their Clearview a destination, a place about nine miles from Interstate 77 that duffers and pros alike can easily put on their summer travel itinerary.
Their friend Harris poses a crazy suggestion.
“I think what would help is if you moved it to Pittsburgh,” he said, breaking into a smile.