William J. (Bill) Powell started playing golf at 9 years old. The grandson of Alabama slaves, Powell grew up during the Depression and got his start on the course as a caddy, earning money to help his family. Powell was a talented athlete, a star football player and one of the founders of his high school golf team. He later attended Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, and played in the first-ever interracial collegiate golf match in American history – and won. However, while the small-town course in his hometown of Minerva welcomed him as a caddy, and later as a golfer, he would not always receive such a warm reception.
After his college victory, Powell found it difficult to continue to pursue his passion. Few courses embraced non-white golfers. During World War II, Powell served in Europe with the U.S. Eighth Air Force Truck Battalion at the rank of Technical Sergeant. Though the military was segregated, Powell enjoyed playing on golf courses in Scotland and England, where he was welcomed on his days off. He returned home hopeful that things had changed, but he was still denied entry to golf courses and by extension, to the game he loved so much. “The thing was, he still had this incredible passion for the game of golf,” says Bill’s daughter Renee Powell. “He knew the only way that he would be able to play was if he found a way to build a golf course somehow.”
Powell wanted to build a course where everyone could play, regardless of race, nationality or religion. The Clearview Golf Club, the first and only African American–built, owned and operated golf course in the world, was established in East Canton, Ohio. Denied a GI loan, Powell raised the money for his course by teaching a few African American doctors to love the game and asking them to invest in his project. As he began building the course in 1946, he also worked a full time job to support his family. Not yet 30 years old, Powell became a golf course architect, builder, superintendent and professional golfer. In 1948, the course opened its doors, and it would expand and grow from nine holes to a full 18 during the next 30 years. Today, Clearview Golf Club is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is nicknamed “America’s Course.” It is a piece of property, said Powell, where “the only color that matters is the color of the greens.”
"I didn’t build this course for any of the recognition. It was a labor of love. Golf is a part of society, and I wanted to be included. I want you to be included, too."
Powell’s family became part of the legacy along the way. “He taught us all to play the game of golf,” says Renee. His son, Larry Powell, has been the course superintendent at Clearview for more than 30 years, and has been recognized by NASA for his work in hydroponics and drought management. Renee is Clearview’s head golf professional and is considered one of the country’s top instructors. She also helps honor her family legacy by working to raise funds for the Clearview Legacy Foundation. She was the second of only three African American women to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour since its creation in 1950, and the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews. (She is one of only three Americans to receive the prestigious award, alongside Charlie Sifford and Jack Nicklaus.)
Bill Powell’s awards are too numerous to mention, but many of them can be found on the Clearview Golf Club website. Among them are the PGA Distinguished Service Award, the Association’s highest honor, induction into the Northern Ohio PGA Hall of Fame, induction into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, and several honorary doctorate degrees.
Powell died on New Year’s Eve, 2009, after what he recently called “the best year of my life.” He was 93. His legacy, however, lives on. “I didn’t build this course for any of the recognition,” Powell once said. “It was a labor of love. Golf is a part of society, and I wanted to be included. I want you to be included, too. I’ve always felt that each individual should leave something behind of meaning. It feels good to know that I have done that with Clearview, at long last.”
Donations to help perpetuate Mr. Powell’s vision for “America’s Course,” can be sent to The Clearview Legacy Foundation for Education, Preservation and Research, a 501(c) 3 charitable foundation, at P.O. Box 30196, East Canton, OH 44730, or by visiting the Clearview website, or by phone: 330-488-0404.
Click here to read an important call to action from the NAACP. Clearview's future depends on it.