Miami golf a focal point of desegregation

In 1949, Garth Reeves would slip away on Mondays from his job as a business manager at the Miami Times for a round of golf at the Miami Springs Golf Course. If it rained or work kept him away, he would have to wait until the next Monday or the Monday after that.

Back then, it was always Monday for black golfers in Miami. That was the day set aside by the city for blacks, when maintenance was being done on the course and people had to go to work. Even now Monday is considered perhaps the most undesirable golf day of the week.

"It wasn't easy lining up putts when you're trying to avoid a lawnmower," said Reeves, now 93 years old.

After serving in the Army's all-black 383rd Engineer Battalion Colored Unit during World War II, Reeves returned home to Miami to work for the Times, which serves the black community. The newspaper had been started by his father, Henry, in 1922.

In the late 1930s, Reeves had started playing golf when he was student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He was a part of a generation of educated black men who came home after WWII with a new resolve to break down the social barriers that had thwarted racial progress in the South.

By the late 1940s the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was seriously challenging racial discrimination in public accommodations and education. Golf courses would prove to be a battleground for the new fight in the courts, and Miami was one of the first test cases.

Reeves and several other blacks, with the help of two NAACP lawyers, showed up in June, 1949 at Miami Springs with their golf bags. When the starter turned them away, the group told him that they planned to file suit against the city for the right to play all seven days of the week. The Florida Supreme Court sided with the city of Miami in its first ruling.

"It cannot be overlooked that persons of the same tastes and desires, whether white or black, usually associate together to enjoy themselves to best advantage," wrote Florida Supreme Court Justice Roy Chapman in 1950. "The reason for the rule was to prevent friction between the white and Negro golfers on the course. Courts are powerless to eradicate social instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences."

After seven years of appeals and court battles that would lead all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Monday-only rule at Miami Springs was finally dropped by the city in 1957. The case was a landmark decision that set a precedent for future public accommodations cases across the segregated South.

"I don't remember us having a big celebration," Reeves said. "But everybody was very happy and relieved that it was finally over."

Miami would become a symbol of progress in the black golf world. Beginning in the mid-1950s, a New York-based black golf promoter, writer and teacher named Ray Mitchell began holding a winter tournament at Miami Springs called the North-South, which brought the biggest black golfers, entertainers, politicians, businessmen and pro athletes to Miami every February for the weeklong event. For years it was the biggest event in the black golf world.

Jackie Robinson, who after integrating Major League Baseball in 1947, was a frequent participant in the tournament.

"Miami was really something the week of that tournament," Reeves said. "We all looked forward to it. We never had so many celebrities in our town. We had parties at places [such as] the Sir John Hotel and the Rockland Palace.

"I was a terrible golfer, a hacker. It was just great to be around Robinson, Althea Gibson and Charlie Sifford and all the big stars of the time."

Reeves would succeed his father as publisher of the Miami Times, and in recent years he has turned over the leadership of the family-owned newspaper to his daughter and grandchildren. Outside his success as a newspaper publisher, he counts his work to integrate the golf courses and beaches in Miami as one of his proudest achievements.

"It's certainly one of the highlights of my life," Reeves said. "I'm just so blessed that I have been able to live to see how much the game of golf has changed for the better."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.