KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sometimes a game is more than a game.
Our FOX4 Black History Month series focuses on Kansas City’s public parks and four old-time businessmen, who refused to take “no” for an answer.
The integration of Kansas City’s municipal park system began to blossom when, in 1950, four African American golfers showed up to play.
A massive campaign for racial equality took place at the Swope Memorial Golf Course in the summer of 1950. Four then black businessmen showed up at the clubhouse of a public golf course which was racially segregated at the time. Black people at the time were not allowed to golf in Swope.
Reuben Benton, then owner of the Kansas City Call newspaper, and three other men, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester “Pat” Johnson, known collectively as “The Foursome”, defied the laws of the civil rights movement. Historians show that the four men, all avid golfers, dropped their greens money on the clubhouse counter and played nine holes at Swope. They are believed to be the first African American golfers in Kansas City to do so.
Shomari Benton, a Kansas City attorney, is Reuben Benton’s grandson. He doesn’t believe his grandfather saw the moment as a precursor to protests and marches. Benton said he believed his grandfather just wanted to play golf with his friends.
“Ask anyone from that era. Reuben Benton was a force to be reckoned with,” Shomari Benton said Tuesday. “It’s bursting the bubble of fear and knowing that you have to take risks to burst that bubble of fear. Even if it’s the law, that doesn’t make it morally right.
Kansas City history shows that the four golfers had a fifth man with them that day – one tasked with protecting their cars from racially motivated vandalism in the golf course parking lot. Their courageous stance led to the incorporation of municipal park golf courses into Kansas City. Jim Watts, ombudsman for the Black Archives of Mid-America, said five years after the Foursome launched in Swope, another group of golfers tried the same thing in Greensboro, North Carolina. Watts said these men went to jail for breaking the law.
Watts also points to a 1938 lawsuit, in which black golfers of the day won the right to play golf on municipal golf courses in Kansas City. Watts said there was no record of anyone attempting to exercise this right before 1950, for fear of repercussions.
“If you go there, you’re going to get shot or beaten up or you’re going to go to jail. White people controlled the law, so if you go to jail, you may never get out of jail,” Watts told FOX4 News.
The Kansas City Parks Department is looking for photos of “The Foursome”. The only known photo, held by the Kansas City Star, shows one of Benton’s relatives holding a photo of the four men. Another photo, purporting to depict the four men, hangs in the Swope Memorial clubhouse. It’s been there for years, but it was recently discovered to have been mislabeled.
Chris Goode, a subway businessman who served as Kansas City Parks Board commissioner for two years, said the battle for “the Foursome” still rages on. Goode points to visible inequalities between public parks in some Kansas City neighborhoods compared to others. Goode offers a comparison of Mill Creek Park, which is near the Country Club Plaza, and Swope Park, which is on the east side of town, as prime examples.
“Why in 2022 is this the case, when resources are plentiful, municipal funds and resources are flowing, but there is still a great imbalance in parts of Kansas City. What these gentlemen have been fighting for is this what we continually fight for today,” Goode pleaded.
“The Foursome” was inducted into the Kansas City Golf Hall of Fame in 2014. It is now managed by Central Links, which is based near Lenexa, Kansas. Watts is working on a documentary about the history of black golf in the Kansas City metro. Anyone with photos of “The Foursome,” as mentioned in this story, should contact the Kansas City Parks Department at (816) 513-7500.
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