Shippen, John 1879–1968
John Shippen 1879–1968
When he was born in 1879, there was no reason to think that John Matthew Shippen, Jr. would ever become the first golf professional to be born in the Unites States. In a family of well-educated and degreed professionals, Shippen would ignore the family focus on education and would instead become the first African American to play golf. Equally importantly, and in an elitist sport where golfers were either British or Scottish, Shippen would become the first American player to compete in a U.S. Open tournament. Ship-pen was neither educated or born to privilege, but he did have a natural talent for the game of golf.
Shippen was the fourth of the nine children born to John Shippen, Sr., and Eliza Spotswood Shippen on December 5, 1879, in Washington, D.C. At the time of Shippen’s birth, the family lived in the Hillsdale section of Anacostia, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. His parents valued the privileged education in their lives, and even though his father had received a certificate of education that permitted him to teach school, which he did at the elementary level, he returned to school in an effort to better provide for his family. Shippen’s father received a degree in theology from Howard University, and when Shippen was just four years old, the family moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the first of the elder Shippen’s church positions. The next move took the family to Florence, Alabama, where they lived for the next few years. By the time Shippen was nine years old, the family was again on the move when in 1889 his father was assigned as pastor to the Presbyterian mission on the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton on New York’s Long Island.
Shippen spent the remainder of his childhood on the Shinnecock reservation, where he attended school and played with his classmates. When Shippen was 12 years old, a nearby piece of land was purchased and developed into a premier golf course that was designed to rival the famous British courses that were then the model of excellence in the golfing world. Shippen was one of the many young boys who were hired to help clear the land and construct the course. By 1895 the new course was nearing completion, and soon a Scottish golfer named Willie Dunn arrived to oversee the completion of the course’s final 18 holes. Dunn decided to teach some of the local boys how to caddie, and Shippen was among the first and most promising of these golfing novices.
In a chapter that related Shippen’s accomplishments for his 1998 book, Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf, author Calvin H. Sinnette told of how all thoughts of completing his education disappeared as Shippen became thoroughly captivated by the game of golf. Sinnette described Shippen as having “spent every waking moment on the golf course practicing under the watchful eye of Willie Dunn.” Even though education was so important to his parents, Shippen dropped out of school and concentrated on golf to the exclusion of all else. He was soon an assistant to Dunn and was even giving lessons to
At a Glance…
Born on December 5, 1879, in Washington, DC; died on July 15, 1968, in Newark, NJ; married Effie Walker, late 1890s (died early 1900s); married Maude Elliot Lee, May 27, 1901 (died 1957): children; six.
Career: Maidstone Golf Club, professional golfer, 1898–1900, 1902–1913; Aronomink, professional golfer, 1900–1902; private golf instructor 1913–1915; Spring take Golf & Country Club, professional golfer, late 1910s; Marine and field Club, professional golfer, late 1910s; Shinnecock Hills, greenskeeper, 1920–21; National Golf links, course maintenance foreman, 1921; Citizens Golf Club, professional golfer, 1921–1927; National Capital Golf Club, professional golfer, 1927–1931; Shady Rest Golf Club, professional golfer, 1931–1957.
Awards: Fifth place, U.S. Open, 1896, 1902; John Shippen Foundation, established in 1990.
some club members. Teaching was not Shippen’s only duty. He arose early every day and arrived at the club to repair clubs and assist the maintenance staff. Shippen also served as a starter for some tournaments and as a scorekeeper. Shippen was still a teenager, according to Sinnette, when it became clear that his skill as a golfer “warranted an opportunity for the sixteen-year-old caddie to match his prowess with the top-ranked golfers of the day.” A year later, in July 1896, the Shinnecock Hill club was selected as the site for the U.S. Open Championship.
In a June 2002 interview, Thurman Simmons, the Chairman of the John Shippen Foundation, told Peter Aviles of the Black Athlete Sports Network, that Shippen did not actually enter the second U.S. Open of his own accord. Instead, his name was entered by some of the members of the Shinnecock club, whom Ship-pen had been teaching. These members—people like the Rothchilds, the Mellons, and the Carnegies—entered Shippen’s name and paid his entrance fees. However just entering Shippen in this prestigious tournament was not enough to guarantee that he would be able to play. Shippen wanted to play, but prejudice and racism were still a very significant issue within all levels of American sporting events. Golf was no exception.
Although not all of the details are known, the story was that a number of the English and Scottish golfers threatened to withdraw if an African American was permitted to play. The tournament director, Theodore F. Havemeyer, refused to have Shippen and his friend, Oscar Bunn, who was a Shinnecock Indian, removed from the tournament. Sinnette stated that one account of this incident has Havemeyer claiming that “Shippen was only ‘half black,’ implying that he would have prohibited the ministers son from playing if he were a full-blooded African American.” When the tournament director would not agree to Shippen and Bunn’s removal, the protesting golfers returned to the course and began playing as scheduled. Thus Shippen became not only the first African American to play in the U.S. Open, but he and Bunn became the first Americans of any ancestry to play. In the first U.S. Open all of the players had been either English or Scottish, but now at the second U.S. Open at least two players would be American, and thus the tournament attracted large crowds who came to see these two young men play.
Shippen acquitted himself well in the first round of play, and in fact was tied with four others at the end of the first round. On the second round he was leading during the first nine holes, but at the thirteenth hole, Ship-pen’s ball became stuck in the sand trap to the far right of the hole. Shippen described the hole in Pete McDaniel’s Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf as “a little, easy par-four. I’d played it many times and I knew I just had to stay on the right side of the fairway with my drive. Well, I played it too far to the right and the ball landed in a sand trap road. Bad trouble in those days before sand wedges. I kept hitting the ball along the road, unable to lift it out of the sand and wound up with an unbelievable eleven for the hole.” As a result, Shippen lost the U.S. Open, seven strokes behind the Scottish winner. He tied for fifth place with a 159 and won ten dollars. While Shippen often was quoted as saying it was just an honor to play in the tournament, he told McDaniel in Uneven Lies, “You know, I’ve wished a hundred times I could have played that little par-four again.”
Although he did not win in his first professional debut, Shippen so impressed tournament observers that he was invited to play an exhibition match against the golf professional at the newly constructed Maidstone Club in nearby East Hampton. Shippen won that match, and Sinnette quoted a leading sporting magazine as claiming that Shippen should be “given every opportunity to show what he can do.”
Shippen’s family returned to Washington, D.C., in 1898, but Shippen decided to remain in Shinnecock on his own. With his victory at Maidstone, Shippen earned the position of club professional at the club. He held this position for the next two years and then moved on to the Aronomink Golf Club near Philadelphia. During this period Shippen also married. His first marriage, to a Shinnecock woman, Effie Walker, ended early when his bride died soon after their marriage. Then on May 27, 1901, Shippen married again. His second wife was also a Shinnecock woman, Maude Elliot Lee. Shippen moved back to the Maidstone club in 1902 and continued as the golf professional at the club until 1913. During this time, Shippen and his wife had six children during their first nine years of marriage. Shippen also continued to play golf and played in several more U.S. Open tournaments—in 1899, 1900, 1902, and 1913. His best finish was in 1902, when he again finished in fifth place. Shippen did achieve an important success when he tutored Walter J. Travis, who won the 1904 British Amateur. This victory added to Shippen’s reputation because at that time the amateur players were more highly regarded than the professional golfers.
According to Sinnette’s book, Shippen worked as a private instructor to a few wealthy businessmen from 1913 to 1915. Over the next few years, Shippen’s movements became less exact. He left his family on the Shinnecock reservation, where his wife was left to her own resources to support and raise their children. In the meantime, Shippen continued to move about on his own during the period from 1915 to 1921. Sinnette stated that Shippen was briefly a professional at Spring Lake Golf & Country Club in New Jersey and was for a time the professional at the Marine and Field Club in Brooklyn, New York. During this period Ship-pen was also briefly back at Shinnecock Hills as a greenskeeper, where he spent two years. After a brief stay as the course maintenance foreman at the National Golf Links on Long Island, Shippen moved back to Washington, D.C., and briefly took a civil service job with the federal public works department. Sinnette’s biography noted that Shippen failed to support his family and that he may have had a problem with alcohol that led to his many moves and frequent employment changes, but this latter allegation could not be proved definitively. Whatever the cause of these frequent job turnovers, Shippen’s next employment was as a golf professional and an instructor at the Citizens Golf Club in Washington, D.C., from 1921 to 1927. Then he worked at the National Capital Country Club in Laurel, Maryland from 1927 until 1931. During these years, Shippen also competed in the United Golfers Association, a professional association for African American players, during the 1920s and 1930s.
Eventually Shippen settled in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, where he would become the head golf professional at the Shady Rest Golf Club. Shady Rest, established in 1925, was the first African-American golf course in the United States. In 1931 when Shippen arrived at Shady Rest, the economy was suffering from the effects of the depression. Money was tight, but Shippen found a way to earn extra money. According to Sinnette, Shippen “gave golf lessons, served as caddie master, repaired clubs, sold golf equipment, and gave greenkeeping consultations to nearby golf courses.” According to McDaniel, when Shippen arrived at Shady Rest, the club had already achieved notice as an important stop for many important scholars and social reformers such as W.E.B. DuBois. Shippen arrived as the club superintendent and golf professional, a position he held for the next 26 years. Shippen’s reputation was enhanced by his association with the club, just as the club gained through Shippen’s reputation as a talented golfer. Through the next few years, Shippen also helped to build golf courses in Maryland and in Washington, D.C.
After his wife’s death in 1957, Shippen apparently reconciled with some of his children. Even though his health was not always good, he still continued to play golf even into his 80s. Shippen died in a Newark, New Jersey, nursing home on July 15, 1968. After his death a committee was formed of friends and admirers who wanted to remember and honor Shippen’s contributions to golf. The committee began honoring Shippen in a very public way in 1990 by staging golf tournaments as a way to raise money for scholarships for deserving African American students. Then, in 1996, this committee created a foundation to honor Ship-pen’s legacy in a more permanent manner. Shippen, himself, never completed school, but shortly after his death, he was quoted in a 1969 Tuesday magazine article as saying, “I wonder if I did the right thing when I quit school and went into golf. Maybe I should have kept going and gone to Yale like my brother who’s a teacher.” However, Shippen never regretted his decision for more than a few moments, and so the establishment of a scholarship in his name suggested both the paradox inherent in Shippen’s lack of education and the promise that today a young athlete need not choose between education or athletics.
For many years there was no mention of Shippen as the first African American to play in a U.S. Open. Often times his ancestry was confused with that of Bunn’s, and Shippen was lauded as an early American Indian golfer and not as an African American. There was some added confusion based on the supposed remarks attributed to Havemeyer that Shippen was only half-black. In John H. Kennedy’s book, A Course of Their Own: A History of African American Golfers, Shippen’s daughter reiterated the point that Ship-pen’s parents had both been black: “‘My father was a Negro,’ said Clara Johnson, ‘Every time I meet somebody, I have to correct that story.’” In fact it was Shippen’s daughter who first pointed out that her father had been an African American, when she told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that her father was black. In an August 2000 article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reporter Monica L. Haynes recalled that the first time that Shippen’s daughter had asserted her father’s race was to a Post-Gazette reporter in 1986. That 1986 reporter, Marino Parascenzo, alerted the United States Golf Association with the need to correct Shippen’s ethnicity in their official records. It had only taken 90 years for Shippen to receive the acclaim he so richly deserved, as the first black man to play in a professional golfing tournament.
Kennedy, John H., A Course of Their Own: A History of African American Golfers, Stark Books, 2000, pp. 7–12.
McDaniel, Pete, Eneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf, The American Golfer, 2000, pp. 23–27, 59–62.
Sinnette, Calvin H., Forbidden Fairways: African Americans and the Game of Golf, Sleeping Bear Press, 1998, pp. 15–25.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 22, 2000, p. D-l.
“An Interview With Thurman Simmons,” Black Athlete Sports Network, www.blackathlete.net/Inter-views/int062302.html (November 13, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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