This story was re-broadcast on September 26, 2020 as part of The Best Of Only A Game.
"My dad used golfing as a life lesson," Michael Holmes says. "That you have to earn your way. That life is hard, that you have to work at it."
Michael Holmes says that his father, Alfred Holmes, nicknamed "Tup," saw golf as more than golf. Michael and his brothers caddied for their dad as soon as they were strong enough to lift a golf bag.
"It was tough, because my dad was a tough guy," Michael says. "He had these rules. You had to carry the bags. You weren’t allowed to ride in the cart. You had to put rubber bands on your pants so that your pants would not flap in the wind. And that you don’t speak."
"He felt that black citizens should have a chance to play on public courses."Hamilton Holmes, Jr.
As a black golfer in the '30s and '40s, Tup had to contend with rules that were tougher than the ones he imposed on his kids. He learned that excellence on the fairway was no guarantee that he could play where he wanted to in his native Atlanta.
"He played at the Lincoln Country Club," Tup’s grandson, Hamilton Holmes Jr., says. "But that was only a nine-hole golf course. And it wasn’t the greatest golf course, from what I understand, either."
That was Tup’s understanding, too. None of Lincoln’s nine holes was longer than 300 yards. The greens were small and the course was poorly maintained. Tup wanted to play elsewhere. But there was a problem.
"Back then the city ordinance here in Atlanta stated that black golfers, or just black people in general, I should say, were not allowed to use public facilities," Hamilton says. "Primarily parks or recreational-type areas."
Tup Holmes would take aim at that ordinance. And it would be the fight of his life.
Tup The Golfer
Tup was born in 1917. He learned basic golf skills from area caddies, and from his father, Hamilton Mayo Holmes, one of Atlanta’s first African-American doctors. Tup earned a spot on Tuskegee Institute’s varsity golf team and won three consecutive Negro Intercollegiate Championships from 1937 to 1939. He qualified to play in the 1939 NCAA golf tournament, but was turned away because of the color of his skin.
He graduated and moved to Detroit, where he sometimes golfed with boxing great Joe Louis. Michael Holmes says Tup thrived as an amateur.
"And he subsequently became the state of Michigan amateur champion, and also the state of Ohio amateur champion," Michael says.
"And he won several amateur 'Negro championships' as they called them back then," Tup's grandson, Hamilton, says.
Tup returned to Georgia with his young family in 1948. Michael Holmes marvels at how he did it all.
"He had many irons in many fires, all at the same time," Michael says. "He owned service stations. He owned an insurance agency. He owned some restaurants. A couple of funeral homes. He was a guy that was always thinking forward."
And Tup still wanted to play golf. In the early 1950s, only three of Atlanta’s more than 130 public parks, which included five golf courses, were accessible to all. By 1951, Tup had had enough.
"He felt that black citizens should have a chance to play on public courses," Hamilton says. "Their public tax dollars were being used to help support the public courses. So why shouldn’t they have a chance to play on the same courses, just like everyone else?"
The Fight Of His Life
So on July 19, 1951, more than four years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, Tup Holmes committed an act of civil disobedience on an Atlanta golf course. Rounding out the foursome were Tup’s father, his brother Reverend Oliver Wendell Holmes, and family friend Charles Bell. Tup chose the course named for golfing legend Bobby Jones.
"They were turned away by the local pro there," Hamilton says. "They didn’t cause a problem. They just turned around and left at that point. But they were determined to try to play on the public courses."
Bobby Jones was a wealthy white Atlantan, famous for regarding golf as the "gentleman’s game." It wasn’t very gentlemanly to bar black golfers from playing on that course. It would have been funny if not for the sheer unfairness of it.
And the danger. Back at home, 5-year-old Michael Holmes and his brothers knew something was up.
"We began to get very disturbing telephone calls and threats that they would kill us if they found us out on the golf courses, if we did not give up on the effort to utilize the golf courses and the parks," Michael says. "A general sense that, 'Hey, get in your place.'"
Tup’s response to the threats was to organize what he called the Atlanta Golf Committee. He hired attorneys. Letters were sent to the city, threatening a lawsuit if African-Americans continued to be denied access to municipal courses.
"William Hartsfield was the mayor, and the city just didn’t respond," Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell says. "The city did not consider the request."
Mitchell is currently campaigning for Mayor of Atlanta.
"It’s just a little ironic that Mayor Hartsfield and city government would deny something so basic," Mitchell says.
The irony Mitchell refers to, perhaps, is that Hartsfield is remembered by some for fostering Atlanta’s image as "the city too busy to hate" and for winning an election over staunch segregationist Lester Maddox.
"Mayor Hartsfield even tried to initiate having the public courses sold to private individuals so that they could be turned into private courses," Hamilton says.
Hartsfield also appropriated $75,000 dollars to build a public course for black golfers. The city shot down that plan, arguing that, "Negroes did not play enough to warrant building a separate golf course." After two years of frustration, Tup Holmes, along with his brother and father, filed a petition in U.S. District Court requesting an injunction preventing Atlanta from discrimination at its public courses.
"It was filed in 1953," Hamilton says. "And then in '54, the court said that the City of Atlanta would be able to keep separate but equal courses, or be able to have certain days where African-Americans could go and play golf on the public courses."
A Landmark Decision
But opposition to the idea that separate could be equal was growing everywhere, including Atlanta. The NAACP offered its resources, and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall joined the Holmes’ legal team as lead attorney. But a series of appeals failed to provide the remedies Holmes was looking for.
"So they decided to continue to pursue the court case, and it eventually went to the Supreme Court of the United States," Hamilton says.
On Nov. 7, 1955, the Supreme Court sent the case back to District Court with strongly worded instructions to end segregation.
"It was not only great for Atlantans, it was great for Georgians, because I think it really made the point that separate but equal was not sufficient and was not the future," Mitchell says.
On Dec. 24, 1955, Tup Holmes exercised his hard-won right, carefully.
"My dad wanted to make sure that my mom and my granddad were protected," Michael says. "There was this kind of underlying notion that they were going to meet violence. And so to avoid having a violent conflict, my dad and uncle and Charles Bell decided to go to North Fulton to avoid the possibility that there would be people waiting on them at Bobby Jones to inflict harm."
"And I think that they were smart to do that," Hamilton says. "And right after that some other African-American golfers came out on Christmas Day and days after and continued to play golf on the city courses."
According to Michael, the Holmes v. Atlanta Supreme Court case not only opened up hundreds of Atlanta parks, it served as precedent in dozens of other desegregation cases. Some consider it to be as important as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case of 1954.
In Memory Of Tup
Tup Holmes died of cancer in 1967. He was only 50 years old. Tup’s accomplishments on the course and in the courts went largely unnoticed for years. But on August 20, 1983, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young rededicated Adams Park Golf Course and renamed it the Alfred "Tup" Holmes Memorial Golf Course. Tup's son, Michael, was there.
"All of my brothers and sisters and my mother were alive at that point in time, and we were at the golf course on that day that it was dedicated," Michael says. "I cried, you know, because someone had finally recognized the impact that my family had had on the city of Atlanta and on generations of African-Americans."
Hamilton Holmes Jr. and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell play the Tup Holmes course from time to time. Michael Holmes doesn’t golf, but he still visits. All agree that the upkeep there needs improvement. But they also agree that a challenging public golf course welcoming everybody is a fitting tribute to Tup Holmes and a reminder to younger generations.
On Nov. 7, 2015, the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s reversal, a dedication ceremony was held at the Bobby Jones Golf Course for an exhibit honoring Tup Holmes. In attendance was the great granddaughter of Charles Bell, one of the golfers who tried to play there in 1951, but was turned away.
"And she asked, 'Who was that man that they were talking about, and why were they talking about that man?' She was maybe 3, 4 years old," Michael says. "And her dad said something that stuck with me. He said that, 'He was talking about you.'"
This segment aired on July 22, 2017.