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Straight from the Mike…The Game they Played


It was a mighty good feeling during the Masters, earlier in April, to see homage and recognition given to an African American trailblazer in the world of golf. The golfer’s name is Lee Elder.

Lee endured quite a bit, as did those before him and after him. For me, the beauty was to see him get his flowers while he is alive and could appreciate the blossoms. He earned respect from his playing peers and from those who followed him, as well as from appreciative fans, like me. I will always remember hearing about his feats when I played regularly at a course where Lee learned the game, Langston Golf Course, in northeast Washington, D.C. Yes, it was a public course, where the privilege to play was your ability to pay, not the color of your skin.

I will never forget his profound response after finishing a round in August when asked by a reporter, “Lee, why aren’t there more blacks in the game of golf” to which Lee replied, “it is awfully hard to hit a three iron off asphalt.”

It is my sincere hope that the historical significance of black history is not lost on some or minimized by others during these times when it seems to have become easier to blame color barrier, racism or other obstacles that happen to be in the way and appear insurmountable. After all, failure requires no effort, while success and opportunity usually mean work, good attitude and a steadfast spirit.

How many of our black youth have ever been told about other significant contributions made in golf beyond that of the renowned Tiger Woods? I am thinking of Jim Thorpe out of Buffalo and Calvin Peete out of Florida. Calvin for example, did not let a serious arm break which occurred in his youth, keep him from mastering the game and going on to win several golf tournaments. During his career, he often led the PGA in driving accuracy. Masters’ history would also show you that, at one stretch, the majority of the caddies at Augusta were black. Who will share with our young people that the inventor of the golf tee was a black dentist out of Boston, Dr. George Grant?

Furthermore, my recollections go beyond just golf. In the late 19th century, the winningest jockeys at several Kentucky Derby races were black jockeys. By the way, often misconstrued as a racist symbol was the lawn jockey, but it was actually sculptured in tribute to one of the best jockeys during that time, Isaac Murphy.

People who don’t know the history of the jockey have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see statues, however, Afro-American historians assert the figures were used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom: Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statues to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going. In addition, markings on the clothing of the jockeys were secret messages the slaves understood as they sought their freedom. This is black history that is not found in the history textbooks within the schools, so we must tell the stories to our young people regularly as we consistently aid them in understanding their history.

I can well remember one of the many poignant analogies that used to be shared with me by the elders of my community…that man is like a potato plant. The value of the plant is not the flowers above the ground, but it is the valued product below the ground that makes it so appreciated.

Nevertheless, an important point for me is that I hope we all get our flowers while we are alive and can appreciate them. We do not always realize how our acts of courage, kindness, leadership, and determination may inspire others to dig a little deeper or try a little harder, instead of surrendering to the tentacles of victimhood that make quitters of all who may succumb to its silent embrace.

Until next time……

Michael Murphy

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