The history of African-American civil rights is the history of a series of pioneers and activists who broke rules and challenged the authority of racist white organizations. Each of these pioneers exhibited courage, stubbornness, and conviction, and, while some went on to have successful careers after breaking down barriers of prejudice, others were themselves broken by the pain and frustration of confronting those barriers. Champion golfer Bill Spiller was one such pioneer. Angered by the racism that had limited his life since childhood, and discouraged by his inability to overcome that racism to achieve the success that he believed he had earned, Spiller remained bitter toward the white golfing establishment until his death. However, enormous societal changes begin with small acts of resistance, and the difficult work done by Spiller and other black golfers to challenge the "Caucasian-only" Professional Golfers' Association broke the race barrier in golf and laid the groundwork for athletes of color in all sports for decades to come.
Bill Spiller learned about the indignities of racism while still a young child. He was born in the town of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, which had been founded in 1856 as the capitol of the Native American Chickasaw Nation. He lived with his grandmother in Tishomingo until he was nine years old, when he moved to the larger city of Tulsa to live with his father. Just a few years later, he had a cruel encounter with racial injustice when he was struck by a white store clerk while attempting to return an item he had purchased. Outraged, and determined to defend himself in the future, the 12-year-old Spiller returned home and began carrying a pistol for protection.
Though Spiller did not discover the sport of golf until he was in his late twenties, he was a talented athlete who played basketball and ran track while attending Tulsa's Booker T. Washington High School. He continued his athletic career after entering Wiley College, an historically black college in Marshall, Texas, where Spiller studied education and sociology. He earned his teaching certificate at Wiley, but found that the teaching jobs available to young black teachers in the Texas of the late 1930s were low-paying positions in remote rural locations. Seeking greater opportunities, he went west to join his mother in Los Angeles, California. There he found work as a redcap, or porter, at the railroad station.
Took Up Golf
It was one of his co-workers at the railroad who first taught Spiller to play golf in December 1942. He was a natural athlete and a determined competitor, and he quickly became an expert player, studying golfing books and observing golfers he admired in order to improve his game. Because he wanted to get experience on the more challenging courses available to country club members, he took a job cooking and waiting on tables at the Los Angeles Country Club, which allowed employees to play golf on certain weekday mornings. During the 1940s, Spiller entered and won every black amateur golf tournament in southern California. He then went to Detroit where he played in the Joe Louis Invitational, a national black golf tourney. Louis was a world champion heavyweight boxer who had become an avid golf player during the 1930s.
Along with demonstrating his skill in all-black tournaments, Spiller also played in two major integrated golf events, the Los Angeles Open and the Tam O'Shanter tourney in Chicago. Through such events, he developed friendships with a few white golfers, such as Sam Snead, Lawson Little, and Jimmy Demaret. However, Spiller was frequently shaken when his white acquaintances would let him know with a casual remark that there would always be racial limits to their friendship.
In 1947 Spiller decided to try to earn his living by playing golf professionally. He joined a tour sponsored by the United Golfers Association. The UGA had its roots in a variety of golfing organizations for people of color that began forming during the early 1900s, as the popularity of golf among African Americans began to grow. (It was a black dentist named George Grant who invented the golf tee in 1899.) By 1925 these regional organizations united to form the United States Colored Golfers Association, which by 1929 had become the United Golfers Association. The UGA promoted the game of golf within the African-American community, offered support to black golfers, and organized tournaments where golfers of any race could compete for cash prizes.
While on the UGA tour, Spiller traveled through many U.S. cities, meeting the best black golfers in the country and continuing to work to improve his own game. In Cincinnati, he met a representative of the MacGregor Golf Company, who, impressed with his professional standing in the UGA, not only outfitted him with new equipment for free, but offered to supply all his future golf needs.
Spiller, however, was about to hit the ceiling of his rise to the top. In 1948, he played in the Los Angeles Open, finishing in the top 60 players. According to association rules, his score qualified him to play in the upcoming PGA tourney in the city of Richmond in San Francisco's Bay Area. Spiller, along with Theodore Rhodes and Madison Gunther, two other African American golfers who had qualified for the Richmond tournament, arrived, ready to play golf. They were approached by a tournament official who told them they would not be allowed to play, as the PGA rules stated that membership was limited to "Caucasians only."
Refused to Accept PGA Restrictions
Spiller was no more prepared to accept the PGA's rejection than he had been willing to accept the Tulsa store clerk's slap in the face when he was a pre-teen. However, this time, rather than running home for a gun, he contacted a lawyer. He, Rhodes, and Gunther filed a racial discrimination suit against the PGA for several hundred thousand dollars. Within weeks, the PGA attorney approached the African-American golfers, promising that the association would end its policy of discrimination. Feeling that they had gained an important victory, the black golfers dropped their suit. However, the PGA had no real intention of becoming an integrated organization. They simply renamed their open tournaments, calling them invitationals. This allowed them to invite only the players they wanted to compete, effectively still barring golfers of color from participating.
Even after being so misled, Spiller did not stop trying to break the PGA's color barrier. In 1953, he qualified, along with fellow black golfers Joe Louis and Euell Clark, to play in the San Diego Open golf tournament. When the PGA tried to bar the three African American players, Louis called on the many powerful friends he had made as a professional boxer. Famous columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell devoted a portion of his radio show to a demand that Louis be allowed to play. In response, the PGA included Joe Louis in the 1953 but turned Spiller and Clark away. Louis continued to press the PGA for change, and the organization finally agreed that strictly limited numbers of African American players could participate in some PGA tournaments, but that they could not become members of the association.
At a Glance …
Born William Spiller on October 25, 1913, in Tishomingo, OK; married Goldie Norman; children: three. Education: Wiley College, BA, education and sociology, 1938.
Career: Professional golfer, 1947-mid-1950s.
Selected memberships: United Golf Association.
Spiller was aware that PGA membership carried many benefits beyond the right to participate in association- sponsored tournaments, such as a preferred employment practice, where PGA members were placed in jobs in country club pro shops. In a meeting with PGA president Horton Smith, Spiller spoke plainly, "I know and you know we're going to play in the tournaments. We all know it's coming. So if you like golf like you say you do, and I do, I think we should make am agreement so we can play without all the adverse publicity. And take this Caucasians-only clause out so we can have the opportunity to get jobs as pros at clubs."
After the very limited victory in San Diego, Spiller played in several PGA tournaments. However, though African Americans had been reluctantly included as players, they were still not welcomed into the locker rooms, dining rooms, and clubhouses of the white-only country clubs that hosted the tournaments. The stress of this constant discrimination and disrespect took a toll on Spiller. He grew angry and bitter, and his golf game suffered under the pressure. Though he played in several PGA-sponsored events, his best performance was fourteenth place at the Labatts Open in Canada.
The discriminatory policy of the PGA, and Spiller's fight against it, continued to affect his career, even after he gave up his dream of living as a professional golfer. His reputation as a troublemaker, coupled with the racism present in many country clubs, made it impossible for Spiller to get a job in prestigious club pro shops. He ended his golfing career giving golf lessons at a local driving range and caddying for other players. He also continued to work as a railroad porter. He felt deeply humiliated at being forced to earn his living in such service jobs when he had tried so hard to succeed as a golf professional.
In 1961, the PGA, in response to the tireless work of Bill Spiller and other African American golfers, dropped its Caucasians-only rule. By that time, Spiller was a 48-year-old man with a wife and three children who felt that he could no longer go on the road as a professional golfer. He would remain bitter throughout his life about the opportunities and success he felt had been denied to him solely because of his race. He died in 1988, after suffering two strokes and living with Parkinson's disease.
In spite of the disappointments that Spiller felt had fatally damaged his career, he is still honored by many as one of the most relentless and courageous pioneers for the rights of African American athletes. During the 1990s, Roy Johnson, assistant managing editor of Sports Illustrated and athletic promoter, founded the Bill Spiller/Homeboy Golf Tournament Classic, an open tourney that highlights African American golfers.
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