Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breaking the Color Barrier at Shady Rest

There seems to be something about Union County and historic golf courses.

First, there was the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark, whose grounds and clubhouse witnessed portions of the Battle of the Short Hills during the Revolution.

And recently I discovered the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, now operating as the Scotch Hills Golf Course in Scotch Plains. While portions of its clubhouse date back to the 1700s, it's notable for two distinctions far more recent: its status as the nation's first African-American owned and operated country club, and as the home course of John Shippen, the first African American golfer to play in the U.S. Open.

Originally owned by Ephraim Tucker and later the site of George Osborn's Tavern, the house and surrounding 31 acres of rolling fields were purchased by the Westfield Golf Club in 1897. The organization converted the farmland to a nine-hole golf course and renovated the farmhouse/tavern into a clubhouse, opening the club in 1900. While the course was popular with its members, the surrounding neighborhood was equally as attractive to the growing African American community that settled there, reducing the acreage available when the club wanted to expand its course to 18 holes. Rather than getting into land disputes with its neighbors, the WGC chose to merge with its Cranford counterpart in 1921, relocating both organizations to the current site of the Echo Lake Country Club.

Seeing an opportunity to organize a country club for the regional African American community, the Progressive Realty Company stepped in and bought the property. What resulted was Shady Rest, marketed as a place "where respectable men and women can come and enjoy the real and outdoor life, and indulge in wholesome, healthful sports, as Golf, Tennis, Croquet, Horseback Riding and Shooting.”

It didn't take long before the club attracted the cream of both the athletic and artistic worlds. Well before she broke the Grand Slam racial barrier with her win at the French Open, Althea Gibson won the club's mixed doubles championship with her coach Sydney Llewellen. The club also became well known for its entertainment, drawing jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, who enthralled club members while others enjoyed the music from outside Shady Rest's gates.

Perhaps most notable, however, is its association with John Shippen, the first American-born competitor in the U.S. Open. A 16 year old self-taught golfer, he'd broken the sport's unspoken color line in 1896 when he played in the Open at the course where he caddied, Long Island's Shinnecock Hills. Later playing in four other Opens, Shippen was nonetheless denied membership in the Professional Golfers Association due to its exclusionary policies. Their loss, however, was Shady Rest's gain; he served as the club's pro from 1931 until 1960. (More information on Shippen's life and achievements is available on an informative website maintained by a foundation organized in his name.)

Like many other organizations, Shady Rest experienced financial strains during the Great Depression, and the town of Scotch Plains acquired the property through a tax lien. Assuming operation of the club in 1964, the town converted it to a public course, which it remains today. To the eyes of this very novice duffer, the rolling hills of Shady Rest appear to be a nice challenge for an afternoon on the links, and the greens fees are more than reasonable, even for non-residents. There's even a very attractive miniature golf range for those who would rather limit their frustrations to a minimum.

If recent events are any indication, the people of Scotch Plains know the treasure they have in Shady Rest. Listed among the state's 10 most endangered historic sites by Preservation New Jersey in 2008, the course and clubhouse were recently granted nearly $140,000 by the township council to finance repairs. While the old farmhouse is unrecognizable beneath the renovations and additions made since Tucker and Osborn owned it, it's well worth preserving for what it represents: the social and recreational pursuits of the black middle class in New Jersey.

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