One day last summer, during my visit to Golf House, the United States Golf Association (USGA) museum and library in Far Hills, N.J., curator Karen Bednarsky showed me a letter she had recently received. It was from JoAnn Overstreet, whose mother, Ann Gregory, had died earlier in the year at age 77. Overstreet wrote that her mother had been a fine golfer, and she wondered if the USGA would be interested in Gregory's trophies.
"Did you know Ann Gregory?" Bednarsky asked me.
Yes, I knew Ann Gregory. I used to play against her. And I also knew that on Sept. 17, 1956, Gregory had teed off in the U.S. Women's Amateur at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis—and so had become the first black woman to play in a national championship conducted by the USGA.
There would be other good black women players: Eoline Thornton, of Long Beach, Calif., played in the 1958 Women's Amateur; Althea Gibson, Wimbledon and USLTA tennis champion, took up the game seriously at age 32 and in 1963 became the first black to play on the LPGA tour; Renee Powell of Canton, Ohio, turned pro in 1967. But Gregory was the first black woman to compete on the national scene, and she might have been the best.
"She was a determined and confident golfer," says Powell, "and she was such a warmhearted, inspirational individual that she helped me by her example, by the kind of person she was. Not enough people know about Ann. She set the stage for every other black female who came into golf after her."
I first met Ann when we were both contestants in the 1963 Women's Amateur in Williamstown, Mass. She was by then a veteran who mingled easily with the other players. But there had been an embarrassing moment earlier in the week.
Polly Riley, who was playing in the tournament, was unpacking her suitcase in her hotel room when she glimpsed Gregory, dressed in white, walking past in the hallway. Mistaking her for a maid, Riley called out, "Hey, can you bring me some coat hangers?" Moments later, Gregory, smiling, came into Riley's room and handed her a bunch of hangers.
"I saw then that she had on golf clothes," says Riley. "I was terribly embarrassed. We laughed about it many times, although that type of thing must have been very difficult for her."
Gregory endured a lot worse. Golf's delicate rituals, however, allow no room for vengeance, and from some deep well of character Gregory was able to forgive the indignities. "Racism is only in your mind. It's something that you overlook or you look at it," she said when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on the history of women's golf. She was 76 then, though she exuded the vitality of a much younger woman, and was playing in the 1988 USGA Senior Women's Amateur. Neither of us knew that it would be her last appearance in national competition.
"Racism works best when you let it affect your mind," she said. "It was better for me to remember that the flaw was in the racist, not in myself. For all the ugliness, I've gotten nice things three times over. I can't think ugly of anybody."
By 1956 there had been few real social advances for women in golf. The creation of the LPGA in 1950, spearheaded by Babe Zaharias and Patty Berg, opened the door for women professionals. But when Gregory stepped onto the 1st tee at Meridian Hills six years later, the burning issue in the women's game was dress codes rather than integration. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, banning racial segregation in public schools. In December 1955 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had led the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala.
In contrast, the women's amateur circuit of the 1950s was a sort of enclave of golf debutantes. The players were fresh-faced, young white women who vied for silver cups on a tour of private clubs and exclusive resorts. The era produced great players, among them Mickey Wright, JoAnne Carner, Marlene Streit, Barbara McIntire and Anne Sander. But following the circuit was expensive, and while a few had jobs, many players were well-to-do.
The opposite was true of Gregory, who was born in Aberdeen, Miss., on July 25, 1912, the daughter of Henry and Myra Moore. Her parents died when she was a child, and she went to live with a white family, the Sanderses, for whom she served as the maid. In '38 she married Percy Gregory, and they moved to Gary, Ind.
"That family cried like babies," Gregory said of her leaving. "They said people in the North were so cold and that I didn't deserve being treated like that. I said, 'Mrs. Sanders, you've prepared me very well for mistreatment.' "
The new Mrs. Gregory was a good athlete. She took up tennis and soon won the Gary city tennis championship. In 1943 she joined the Chicago Women's Golf Association (CWGA), a black organization, and took golf lessons from Calvin Ingram, a good black player who worked at a Chicago club.
It wasn't long before she was winning amateur tournaments, including the CWGA championship, the Joe Louis Invitational in Detroit and the championship of the United Golf Association (UGA), a national organization for black players. Those events drew little or no notice in most major newspapers, but black papers hailed her as "The Queen of Negro Women's Golf," and in 1947 George S. May, a golf promoter in Chicago, invited her to play in his open invitational tournament, the Tam O'Shanter. She was the only black woman in the field.
"Mr. May told me if anyone said anything to me, to let him know," Gregory said. "No one did. The galleries were just beautiful to me. But I was lonely. For a whole week I didn't see any black people.
"My neighbors drove up from Gary to see me play the final round and, when I saw them, that's the only time I felt funny. It just did something to me to see my black friends among all those white people, and I cried."
The Gregorys lived in a comfortable house in Gary, where Percy worked for U.S. Steel. Ann was a caterer for the University Club, served on the Community Chest and United Fund committees, and in 1954 became the first black appointed to the Gary Public Library Board.
In 1956 the Chicago group became the first black organization to join the USGA, thereby making Gregory eligible for its championships. She immediately entered the 1956 Women's Amateur and drove to Indianapolis with Jolyn Robichaux, a friend from the CWGA.
"We were so excited about the idea of her being in the championship that we didn't notice any problems," says Robichaux, who lives in suburban Chicago. "Ann was the type we needed to break that barrier. She was outgoing, told jokes and was compassionate and encouraging to the other golfers. They immediately liked her. Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA, did everything he could to see that her participation was pleasant."
The Associated Press noted the historic day: "A starting field of 105 players, including the first Negro in its history, was paired Saturday for match play in the 56th USGA Women's Amateur...."
But there was no escape from prejudice. Gregory's first opponent, Carolyn Cudone, a Curtis Cup player from West Caldwell, N.J., recalled a parking attendant telling her father, "Your daughter better win today, or you'd better not come back to this parking lot."
"Every reporter in Indianapolis was there," recalls Cudone. "You couldn't stir them with a stick! She must have been nervous as a wet hen, because as we left the tee, she said if she didn't count her strokes right, it wasn't on purpose."
Cudone had her hands full. Making several escapes from bunkers, Gregory gained a 2-up lead, then began to drive wildly. Her lead collapsed, and she narrowly lost the landmark match, 2 and 1.
"My husband said I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell," Gregory confided as she shook Cudone's hand. "I guess I fooled him."
In 1957 Gregory returned to the Women's Amateur and advanced to the third round without incident. Subsequent appearances didn't go so smoothly.
When she arrived at the 1959 championship at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., trouble was brewing. A UGA event was under way in Washington, D.C., and black members were angry that Gregory had chosen instead to play in a white tournament. And Congressional simply didn't want her. In a flare-up of prejudice, the club barred her from the traditional players' dinner on the eve of the championship. Dey broke the news.
"I told Joe Dey it was no big deal," Gregory said. "I said, 'I realize the money I paid to enter the tournament didn't buy stock in the clubhouse. I'll eat me a hamburger and be just as happy as a lark, waiting on tee number 1.' I didn't feel bad. I didn't. I just wanted to play golf. They were letting me play golf. So I got me a hamburger and went to bed."
One of Gregory's best performances in national competition followed. In the second round she faced the Georgia state champion, Mrs. Curtis Jordan.
The Georgia player, heavily favored by the gallery, dashed to a 2-up lead. Gregory, meanwhile, enjoyed her own fans. With Frank Stranahan, an Ohio professional, cheering her from the sidelines she began to rally. She squared the match on the 17th. On the home hole, she hit a clutch shot, firing a three-iron over a pond to the putting surface. When Jordan hit her ball into a bunker and bogeyed, Gregory had two putts to win the match.
"I stroked my putt, turned my head away and heard the ball fall into the cup," she remembered. "All of the people began to applaud for me. When I made that deuce to win, my caddie turned a somersault. The club fired him for that. When I asked for my caddie the next day, the caddie master told me he had been fired."
Gregory lost her third-round match, 6 and 4.
"After I lost, the club president invited me into his office," Gregory recalled. "He told me that I had exhibited myself as one of the most beautiful ladies to ever walk that golf course, and that I was welcome to play there anytime I was in that area.
"I thought, He's got to be crazy! I would never come back there to play after all of the things they put me through."
There would be other incidents. When she played in the 1960 Women's Amateur, in Tulsa in August, the manager of a white hotel would not honor her reservation and sent her to a shabby black hotel with no air-conditioning. Ann and Percy sat on the hotel steps eating ice cream until she was tired and cool enough to sleep.
At home in Gary, Gregory played at Gleason Park, a public course. Only whites were allowed to play the 18-hole layout at Gleason Park, while blacks had to make do with a nine-hole course. One day in the early 1960s, Gregory slapped her money on the counter and announced that she had outgrown the short layout.
"My tax dollars are taking care of the big course, and there's no way you can bar me from it," she said.
She teed off and played without interference. Soon Gary's black golfers began to make tee times on the longer course.
In 1971 Gregory nearly won the U.S. Senior Women's Amateur, at Sea Island (Ga.) Golf Club. In the final round of stroke play, only one woman stood between her and a national championship, her old rival and friend Carolyn Cudone. Cudone parred the last hole to beat Gregory by a single stroke.
"Ann was a lady and she could play," says Cudone. "She was a fine competitor. She played the game as you wanted to see it played."
When I last saw Ann, in 1988, I asked for photocopies of her tournament records. Instead, she shipped her scrapbooks to me. I leafed through them, moved by the life that unfolded in yellowed newspaper clippings. On one page she had pasted her invitation to a 1963 tournament in the South. I, too, had saved my invitation to that tournament, but I knew that Ann's invitation meant so much more.
She teed it up during a difficult era, against odds that few of us can ever know. She endured painful slights with warmth, humor, courage and good sense. More than most of us, she cherished the game, and in the end, she honored it. I knew Ann Gregory. She was simply a golfer. A very fine one.
Adapted from a forthcoming book on the history of women's golf, by Rhonda Glenn.