Willie Jr., Louis
Louis Willie Jr.
Louis J. Willie Jr. was the unlikely peacemaker in a standoff between civil rights advocates and the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) in 1990 when he was invited to become the first African-American member of a whites-only club in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Willie was a successful insurance and bank executive who was in his late sixties by then, and had grown up during the era when much harsher rules segregated public and private life in the American South. His invitation to join the Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club thwarted a threatened boycott and financial debacle for the PGA, which was about to host its annual championship there. "I am not naive," Willie told the Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom at the time. "I know about two-facedness. I know about tokenism. But the welfare of our community is the most important thing. A divided community is never good. If suffering a little two-facedness is the only sacrifice I have to make to bring harmony back to our city, I will gladly do it."
Willie was born in 1923 in Fort Worth, Texas, and was the son of a teacher married to a Pullman porter. Pullman porters were the attendants on the ubiquitous Pullman sleeper cars during the golden age of passenger-train travel. At a time when there were very few skilled trades open to black men, a career as a Pullman porter was a ticket to a respectable and steady job, despite its somewhat servile overtones. Some of the leaders of the Pullman union went on to play an important role in the U.S. labor movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Willie was raised in another Texas city, Dallas, which like most southern cities and towns was strictly segregated.
Willie graduated from a historically black school, Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, in 1943 and served in the U.S. military during World War II. He went on to earn a graduate business degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the only African-American student in his class of 1947. For a time, he taught at another historically black school, Nashville's Tennessee State University, but in 1950 he joined the staff of the McKissack Brothers, a prominent black architectural firm in Nashville. After two years there, he moved on to the growing insurance and property business owned by Arthur G. Gaston, a wealthy African-American entrepreneur in Birmingham, Alabama. Gaston had progressed from a lunch-cart business in the coal and iron mines to loaning miners money and founding a savings and loan bank for the city's financially underserved African-American community. Gaston also founded a burial insurance business that grew into a full-fledged insurance outfit, the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company. By 1981 Willie had become the insurance company's executive vice president, and was made president in 1986. He also served as vice president and treasury secretary of the Gaston bank, called Citizens Federal Saving and Loan Association and later renamed CFS Bancshares.
Birmingham had been one of the epicenters of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and early 1960s, and was the site of a notorious white-supremacist bombing of a black church that killed four young girls. During the summer of 1963 Birmingham was also host to civil rights demonstrations whose dispersal police accomplished with the help of fire hoses and police dogs. Not surprisingly, Birmingham was slow to abandon its racially polarized past, but Willie had been chosen as the first minority member of a few organizations before the Shoal Creek fracas erupted. He was the first African-American member of the Birmingham Kiwanis Club, and the first black to join two exclusive dining clubs in the city. The 1990 PGA controversy was not the first time his name had surfaced in a national news story about lingering prejudices in the American South, either: in 1982 the Rotary Club of Birmingham voted to maintain its whites-only policy, and Willie was interviewed by the New York Times as one of the city's leading black figures. "It's evidence that we still have some problems in Birmingham with respect to people who are different from one another," he told the newspaper's Reginald Stuart. "This does not enhance the image many of us have tried to convey to the world that Birmingham has changed."
The PGA furor began when the Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club was readying to host the 1990 PGA Championship. Founded in 1977, the private club had no black members and was an invitation-only club. When a member of the Birmingham City Council discovered that the city had paid $1,500 for an ad in the PGA event program, the ethics of using taxpayer funds to support an institution that discriminated against African Americans was called into question. Hall Thompson, the founder and president of Shoal Creek, was interviewed by a local newspaper, the Birmingham Post-Herald, and asked his opinion on the matter. "We have the right to associate or not to associate with whomever we choose," Thompson said, according to William Oscar Johnson in Sports Illustrated. "The country club is our home and we pick and choose who we want…. I think we've said that we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks."
Thompson's remarks were printed in the Post-Herald, and then the story was picked up by national news outlets. Civil rights and antiracism organizations pointed out that even federal antidiscrimination legislation could not wipe out the legacy of slavery in the South, and questions began to be raised about why the PGA seemed to condone such attitudes by staging its events at clubs that had no black members. When sponsors of the PGA Championships such as IBM began to pull out of the coming broadcast, the PGA board looked for a solution.
At a Glance …
Born Louis J. Willie Jr. on August 22, 1923 in Fort Worth, TX; died of Alzheimer's disease, September 16, 2007, in Birmingham, AL; son of Louis J. Willie Sr. (a Pullman porter) and Carrie Sykes Willie (a teacher); married Yvonne Kirkpatrick; children: Louis J. III. Military service: Served in the U.S. military during World War II. Education: Wiley College, BA, 1943; University of Michigan, MBA, 1947; earned chartered life underwriter (CLU) designation from the American College of Underwriters.
Career: Tennessee State University, instructor 1947-50; McKissack Brothers (architectural firm), office manager 1950-52; rose through the ranks of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company to become executive vice president, 1981-86, and president, 1986-94; Citizens Federal Saving and Loan Association, treasury secretary and president, 1988-94.
Memberships: Alabama Power Company (director); American South Bancorporation (director); Association of Life Insurance Companies (board director); Birmingham branch of the Federal Reserve Bank—Atlanta (director and chair); National Black MBA Association; United Way of Central Alabama (board member); Salvation Army (board of directors); University of Alabama. Birmingham (member of president's council).
Awards: Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1985; H. Naylor Fitzhugh Award of Excellence, National Black MBA Association, 1992; received honorary LLD degrees from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Birmingham Southern College.
In the end, Thompson extended an invitation to Willie to become Shoal Creek's first African-American member, and the $35,000 joining fee was waived. Willie was far from an avid golfer, but he accepted the offer anyway. Several other whites-only clubs that hoped to continue their relationship with the PGA Tour—a series of other golf events separate from the annual championships—quickly moved to integrate their membership rolls. More important, the PGA and the three other professional entities of the sport drafted contracts that obligated clubs on their circuit to have policies in place that showed they were working toward a more integrated membership. "What happened at Shoal Creek is only 20 percent about sports," the tennis legend Arthur Ashe told Jaime Diaz in the New York Times a few months later. "It's about society, commerce and cul- ture. It's the upper echelon of white society finally being forced to say, ‘All right, it's time.’"
Shoal Creek finally admitted its first dues-paying African-American member in 1996. By then Willie had retired from the Washington Insurance Company and his other duties with the Gaston empire. He died on September 16, 2007, in Birmingham, survived by wife, Yvonne, and son, Louis J. III.
Detroit Free Press, August 2, 1990.
New York Times, July 26, 1981; May 31, 1982; August 5, 1990; January 14, 1991; August 5, 1991; September 19, 2007, p. C11.
Sports Illustrated, August 13, 1990, p. 54.
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