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Wed, 12.07.1955

The ‘Greenboro Six’, a story

This date in 1955 marks the encounter of the "Greensboro Six," a racial episode involving Jim Crow segregation.

It took place at a golf course in Greensboro, N.C. On the morning of December 7, 1955, an early winter day, George C. Simkins, Jr. awaited the arrival of five golf partners, a regular occurrence. When they wanted a change of pace, they would meet and drive to High Point, Charlotte, or Durham to play one of the few courses open to Blacks. On this day, though, they planned to play Gillespie Park, a city-owned course operated as a private facility by a group of white citizens who leased it for $1. Lease agreements such as this were common among Southern municipalities, which sought to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling that made it unlawful for city-owned golf courses to discriminate against anyone.  Play at Gillespie Park was restricted to "members" and their guests.

Blacks fit neither category, but the six golfers were determined to change that. When they arrived at Gillespie Park, the golf shop attendant greeted them with the warmth of day-old grits, saying they could not play, grabbing the registration book to keep them from signing it. One after another, Dr. Simkins, Leon Wolfe, Joseph Sturdivant, Samuel Murray, Elijah Herring, and Phillip Cook defiantly placed their 75-cent green fee on the counter and headed for the first tee. They were on the fifth hole when head pro Ernie Edwards caught up with them. Brandishing a golf club, Edwards cursed at the six and threatened to have them arrested if they didn't leave. The golfers ignored Edwards' warning, finished nine holes, and departed for home.

Later that evening, a Black police officer arrested the six dissidents and took them to the county jail. Their bail was paid, and the fight to desegregate public golf courses in Greensboro followed. The six golfers were eventually found guilty of trespassing and sentenced to 30 days in jail. They lost an appeal in the superior court, and got an active jail sentence, but continued the fight at the federal court level.

There, Judge Johnson J. Hayes ruled in their favor and issued a declaratory judgment. He ordered Gillespie Park opened to everyone within two weeks. But before the order could be enforced, someone slipped into the Gillespie Park clubhouse and burned it to the ground. City officials refused to rebuild the clubhouse, and closed the golf course, reopening it to the public seven years later.

The "Greensboro Six" eventually appealed the original decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They attempted to get Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to represent them, but he refused to take the case.  Marshall felt they should have gotten an injunction to play the course, saying they would lose by one vote and that Justice Tom Clark would be the deciding vote, which was precisely what happened. Governor Luther Hodges commuted their sentences, but it was small consolation.

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