Ann Gregory began playing competitive golf during the 1940s, a time of war, when the absence of men opened up opportunities for women to excel in many fields. She was a devoted and self-possessed player who won hundreds of tournaments, both in the United States and abroad. Although almost all golfers of the time were wealthy and white, Gregory was neither intimidated nor defiant. With calm confidence and unfailing politeness, she quietly broke down racial barriers, both in her home city of Gary, Indiana, and nationally, as she became the first African American woman to enter a U.S. Golf Association championship tournament. Though she experienced many incidents of racism and discrimination, Gregory impressed almost everyone she met with her warmth, humor, and grace, making many friends in both the black and the white golf circuits. She continued to play competitively right up to her death, winning a gold medal in the U.S. Senior Olympics at the age 76.
Left the Segregated South
Gregory was born Ann Moore on July 25, 1912, in the eastern Mississippi city of Aberdeen, a port on the Tombigbee River. Her parents, Henry and Myra Moore, died when she was still a young child. Gregory was then raised by a white family in Aberdeen. However, the Mississippi of the early 1900s was only two generations removed from the days of slavery, and young Ann Moore was not brought into the white family like a daughter, but made to work as a servant and often treated poorly. With few other options, she remained with the family, working as a maid, until she married in 1938.
When her husband, Leroy Percy Gregory, wanted to go north to look for work, Ann Gregory eagerly took the opportunity to leave her bad experiences in the South behind. The couple moved to Gary, Indiana, where Percy went to work in the steel mills and Ann worked as a caterer at the University Club. Both the Gregorys were athletic, and Ann soon began playing tennis, winning the Gary city tennis championship. Percy enjoyed playing golf and had begun teaching Ann to play when the start of World War II cut their lessons short. Shortly after the birth of their only daughter, Jo-Ann, in 1942, Percy Gregory entered the U.S. Navy and spent several years overseas.
Took Up Golf
Left alone with her baby, Gregory continued to pursue her interest in golf, honing her skills and taking lessons from a local African-American golf professional named Calvin Ingram. By the time her husband returned home at the war's end, Ann Gregory had begun entering amateur golfing competitions.
As the second half of the twentieth century began, a majority of U.S. public institutions, organizations, and sporting events were still racially segregated. This was especially apparent in sports like golf, which required expensive, well-maintained grass courses for play, so were most often confined to the country clubs of the upper classes. Even the public golf course in Gary was segregated, with only a small nine-hole course open to black players, while white players were permitted to use a full eighteen-hole course. In 1925, black golfers had come together to form the United States Colored Golfers Association (later called the United Golfers Association or UGA). The UGA held black-only tournaments for both men and women, creating a place for competitive African American golfers to meet and play.
Gregory played in many UGA tournaments and soon began winning. Her successes attracted the notice of George S. May, a successful white Chicago businessman and well-known golf promoter. May owned an exclusive Illinois country club called the Tam O'Shanter, and, in 1947, he invited the new African-American champion to compete in one of his tournaments. In her 1992 book The Illustrated History of Women's Golf, Rhonda Glenn quotes Gregory's description of her first experience playing golf at an all-white club, "The galleries were just beautiful to me, but I was lonely. For a whole week I didn't see any black people. My neighbors drove up from Gary to see me play the final round and, when I saw them, that's the only time I felt funny. It just did something to me to see my black friends among all those white people, and I cried."
Broke Color Barriers
Though breaking the color barrier was frightening and painful, Gregory's love of golf along with a strong sense of justice urged her forward. She enjoyed the challenge of competition, so she continued to look for new places to test her skill. In 1950, Ann Gregory entered seven black golf tournaments and won six, including the National UGA tourney in Washington, D.C. The next logical step was to enter the competitions sponsored by the U.S. Golf Association, an amateur golfer's group that had been founded in 1894. Centered in various country clubs, the USGA was a segregated white organization.
During the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement was growing stronger and an increasing number of African Americans were no longer willing to accept second-class citizenship. In 1956, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, the Chicago Women's Golf Association became the first black organization to join the USGA, in large part so that one of its members, Ann Gregory, could begin to compete in USGA tournaments. On September 17, 1956, Gregory entered in the USGA Women's Amateur Championship in Indianapolis, Indiana, becoming the first African-America woman to play in any USGA tournament.
Gregory continued to play in USGA tournaments throughout the next three decades. She approached the game with dedication, cordiality, and humor and made many friends among the other golfers. In spite of this, she frequently encountered prejudice and discrimination, such as not being permitted to stay in white hotels with the other golfers. In 1959, at a tournament in Bethesda, Maryland, the local tournament committee voted to exclude her from the players' dinner, and, during a 1963 competition, a white golfer mistook her for a maid. Gregory remained unruffled in the face of such examples of ignorance and bigotry, offering a friendly smile, then devoting her energy to winning. "Racism works best when you let it affect your mind," she said, according to Rhonda Glenn. "It was better for me to remember that the flaw was in the racist, not in me. For all the ugliness, I've gotten nice things three times over. I can't think ugly of anybody."
While paving the way for black golfers nationally, Gregory also continued to break barriers at home. During the 1960s, she entered Gary's segregated public golf course, stating that she was a taxpayer and intended to play on the white-only eighteen-hole course. She played her round without incident, and soon other African American golfers left the black nine-hole course to join her. She also devoted much time and energy to supporting her community with charity work and became the first black member of Gary's Public Library board.
At a Glance …
Born Ann Moore on July 25, 1912, in Aberdeen, MS; died 1990, in Gary, IN; married Leroy Percy Gregory, 1938 (died 1989); children: Jo-Ann.
Career: Amateur tournament golfer, 1950-89.
Selected memberships: Chicago Women's Golf Association; Community Chest; United Fund; Gary, Indiana Public Library, Board of Directors.
Awards: U.S. Senior Olympics, golf, gold medal, 1989.
Ann Gregory continued to compete in amateur golf tournaments throughout the United States and abroad. Her courage and grace provided inspiration to a new generation of African-American women golfers, beginning with pioneering golf professionals like Althea Gibson and Renee Powell and continuing into the twenty-first century with such successful players as Robin Aikens and LaRee Sugg. Gregory also provided an example of aging with vigor by continuing to play competitive golf into her seventies. In 1989, at the age of 76, she won the gold medal for golf at the U.S. Senior Olympics, defeating a field of golfers over the age of 49. She died in 1990. A decade later the Urban Chamber of Commerce of Las Vegas launched an annual Ann Gregory Memorial Scholarship Golf Tournament to honor Gregory's achievements.
Glenn, Rhonda, The Illustrated History of Women's Golf, Taylor Trade Publishing, Boulder, Colorado, 1991.
McDaniel, Pete, Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African Americans in Golf, American Golfer, 2000.
Sinnette, Calvin H., Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf, Thomson Gale, 1998.
Black Enterprise, August 1992, September 1999.
Sentinel (Los Angeles, California), February 17, 2000, p. B3.
Sports Illustrated, May 20, 1991, pp. 16-20.
"Ann Gregory," AfroGolf.com,www.afrogolf.com/ANNGREGORY.HTML (August 8, 2007).
"Black Golf History," Golfblogger,www.golfblogger.com/index.php/golf/comments/black_golf_history/ (August 8, 2007).
"African Americans and Golf, A Brief History," African American Registry,www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/2160/AfricanAmericans_and_golf_a_brief_history (August 8, 2007).
"Pioneer Gregory Broke Color Barriers," USGA,www.usga.org/news/2005/february/gregory.html (August 10, 2007).
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