William J. Powell is a descendant of the Alabama slaves who became the first African-American to design, construct and own a professional golf course
William J. Powell is a descendant of the Alabama slaves who became the first African-American to design, construct and own a professional golf course in the United States. He is famously remembered as a pioneering golf course owner who curated the Clearview Golf Club, the first integrated golf course to cater to African-American golfers.
The entrepreneur and businessman was born on November 22nd, 1916, in Greenville, Alabama. After a short while in his hometown, he moved with his family to Minerva, Ohio. He participated in golf and football during high school. Later, at the state’s historically African-American Wilberforce University, he joined the golf team.
Even while stationed in England, serving in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, Powell continued to play golf there and did not allow his color to restrict him from fulfilling his potential.
Upon his return to his hometown, in spite of being a veteran, he was still denied entry to golf courses because of his color. This alters his decision to build his own course. However, he was denied a G.I. Loan in September 1946, despite serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Powell then relied on the financial backing of two black physicians in nearby Canton and Massillon, Ohio, to begin the construction of the public golf course. He added his own part of the necessary capital after his brother, Berry, took a mortgage on his home.
He bought a 78-acre (320,000 m2) dairy farm in East Canton, Ohio and his wife, Marcella did the majority of the landscaping by hand.
Powell’s dream became a reality in April 1948, with nine holes debuting for play on the former dairy farmland. A decade later, Powell bought out his partners and added 52 acres for a second nine holes.
The complete 18-hole layout was inaugurated for play in 1978. Powell’s family, which consists of his wife Marcella; eldest son Billy, daughter Renee; son Larry and a close friend Euley Green formed the team that prepared and polished Clearview.
Presently, Clearview Golf Club is enlisted on the National Register of Historic Places. Williams once described Clearview, a 130-acre property, as “America’s Course… a course where the only color that matters is the color of the greens.”
After receiving an award one time, Powell said: “I am so excited to have people think this way of me. I have had so many different things happen to me, I believe, because golf sees no color. It is a game that unleashes the best in people and it is important to young people. Golf represents nothing but good. If you can get the youths in the game, then they are good for all their lives.”
Powell said he believes that when Clearview Golf Club debuted for play in 1948, it truly symbolized “America’s First Tee.”
Out of six children of parents Berry and Massaleaner Powell, Powell was the third child. As the post-World War I economy shifted, the Powell’s family relocated to Minerva, Ohio, where Berry Powell ended his business of owning a general store and found steady work in a pottery factory.
His passion for golf started as a youthful fascination by playing and caddying at Edgewater Golf Course. At age 9, he would climb over or crawl under fences to sneak onto courses near his hometown of Minerva, Ohio, 20 miles from Canton to watch white men play.
As he began to watch and play his own game enhanced. He soon became a multi-sport athlete at Minerva High School, a fine amateur player and was the first black to compete in a junior event at Orchard Hills Country Club (now Arrowhead Country Club) in north Canton. For two days respectively, the 16-year-old Powell hitchhiked 42 miles round trip to the course and finished third in the tournament.
Thereafter, he attended Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio,where he was part of the school’s men’s golf team that traveled to face Ohio Northern University in 1937 at Lost Creek Country Club in Lima, Ohio. It was the first inter-racial collegiate golf match in American history, with Wilberforce returning home victoriously and also capturing the rematch.
His contributions to the Golf course made him to be crowned the National Golf Foundation as the Jack Nicklaus Golf Family of the Year in 1992. That same year, William was honored with the “Cornerstone of Freedom Award” from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
Powell was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame, in 1996 and in 1997 respectively, he was presented Honorary PGA membership by the Northern Ohio PGA Section. In 1999, his membership was made retroactive to Jan. 1, 1962, which makes Powell a PGA Life Member.
Today, the Tiger Woods Foundation annually awards the William and Marcella Powell Scholarships. In 2007, William and Renee Powell were also inducted into the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame.
As of the 2000s, Clearview was the only course in the United States pioneered, constructed, owned and curated by an African American.
Powell passed away in Canton, Ohio, on New Year’s Eve, 2009, after being diagnosed with a stroke. In 2009, Powell was crowned the recipient of the 2009 PGA Distinguished Service Award by the Professional Golfers Association and was honored in conjunction with the 91st PGA Championship.
The Powell family was named the recipient of the 2019 Old Tom Morris Award by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and was honored at the 2019 Golf Industry Show.
Today in the United States, Clearview is controlled and overseen by his children Larry Powell, Superintendent, and Renee Powell, LPGA/PGA Head Golf Professional.