Exploring Floyd Hall Jr.'s History of African American Golfers in Forest Park

Voices Unheard: African American Golfers in Forest Park

While historic Forest Park is a well-known urban park, event space and overall outdoor national treasure, there’s more to be said about the history of sports in the Park and, in particular, the sport of golf. Of course, everyone knows the story of the 1904 Summer Olympics, but the story of golf and those who love the game is a story less often told.

For Floyd Hall Jr., the story of golf in Forest Park needed to be told, especially from the voice of African American golfers. The Boys in the Park: A History of Black Golf in Forest Park and Across the Metropolitan Region, written by Floyd Hall Jr. with local golf historian Jim Healey, details the history of African American golfers in Forest Park and the St. Louis metropolitan area. In the book, Hall goes into detail on black golfers who honed their skills in Forest Park, built relationships with members of their community and garnered accomplishments and accolades across the nation. Through Hall’s words, readers explore both the struggles and triumphs of black golfers in St. Louis.

Sitting down with him over a cup of coffee, Hall recalls how the game has influenced his life. “I’ve played golf with people from all walks of life — doctors, lawyers, governors, you name it,” he says. While he has met many characters on the course, Hall reveals his motivation for writing this piece.

“Calvin Tanner was a professional golfer who introduced me to the game,” he says. “He was one of the greatest black golfers in the game. I wanted to put together a collage of Calvin’s life, his friends and his accomplishments, but it turned into something more.”

When asked what that “something more” was, Hall describes the experience of black golfers of yesterday.

“We were told as blacks, ‘You can carry the bag, but you can’t play the game’,” he says. “This book was not about making a lot of money. It was about telling a story, of small people, in small places.”

With the assistance of Jim Healey, Hall did just that.

“In 2015, Floyd brought all these scrapbooks and pictures of players, some I’d heard of and some I’d not,” Healey says. “From there, we constantly collaborated. Floyd was so proud to be able to share the history with the family members of black golfers who were no longer here.”

Through Hall’s words, readers explore both the struggles and triumphs of black golfers in St. Louis.

Early Champions of Justice

In 1922 in St. Louis, only four African Americans had applied for golf permits compared to 11,000 white golfers. To appease black golfers, but also play to the notion of “separate but equal” politics,” Circuit Judge Moses Hartmann ruled that they could have access to the golf course in Forest Park only on Monday mornings. For years, Monday morning golf was nonexistent, as no black players came to play. Many in the black community protested the decision to have a separate day and a small fraction of time to play; however, these protests had little impact.

Slowly, black golfers began to take to the course on Mondays, organizing their own tournaments and events. “From 1923 to 1929, dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Sport’ in America, these players were able to enjoy as best they could, the limited access given to them to the 27-holes in Forest Park,” writes Hall. While it wasn’t considered professional by any means, it was a leisurely experience and a way for black golfers to enjoy the game and build community.

Hall explains how these early champions of the sport are often forgotten in the history of golf, especially where race relations are concerned. “The original Negro players who made up the first ‘Boys in the Park’ in the 1920s are, for the most part, invisible faces, long since vanished from this earth,” he writes. In fact, many of those players did not know the ground they were breaking as some of the first African American golfers in the Park.

A Paramount Step

In the Spring of 1931, Paramount Golf Club became an organization and one of the first black golf clubs west of the Mississippi. Well-known local educator Dr. Samuel Shepard Jr. was the first president of the club with a mission to promote fellowship and true sportsmanship among members. Despite the club coming to prominence during the height of The Great Depression, it succeeded in its mission.

The club also launched husband and wife members James and Julia Siler into local celebrity status. James Siler was known as the “Father of Negro Golf” in St. Louis, while his wife Julia was known as the “Queen of the Links.” As Hall describes it, the duo “set the tone” for future players. As leaders of the Paramount Golf Club, not only were the Silers consistent in their play, but they were consistent in their love of golf and their urging of black golfers to play.

The formation of the Paramount Golf Club, however, was more than just a noble accomplishment. As Hall states, “Just by creating the club, they kept alive the goals of the original ‘Boys in the Park’ for black golfers to have access to the course.” But now, there was something to play for. Playing for a club meant real opportunities at championships, which meant real opportunities for exposure, competition and respect.

Separate but Equal No More

“Up until 1954, park officials would ring at noon that meant all of the black golfers would have to leave the park,” says Healey. He adds that black golfers like Booker Ford were forced to leave playing the game they loved, with Ford once noting, “I should have been more upset about the way I was treated, but I couldn’t afford to get angry, all I wanted to do was go out and play golf.”

The overturning of segregation laws that came after 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision was long and arduous. However, black golfers were thrilled to find that the original 1923 ruling of “Mondays only” would be abolished, allowing them complete access to the Forest Park golf course. While racism would continue to plague the sport throughout the first several years, the number of black golfers steadily rose and black golfers could be seen playing in Forest Park on any day of the week.

In the 1970s, however, St. Louis found itself in financial troubles, which meant less money spent on public park upkeeps. Hall mentions that these woes carried over into the 80s and 90s, which saw management companies trying to keep the course in an accommodating state, but struggling due to the sheer number of rounds played per year and the lack of funds rolling in from the city.

During this time, Forest Park Forever was founded as a nonprofit conservancy partnering with the City of St. Louis and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. Its mission became to restore, maintain and sustain Forest Park as one of America's greatest urban public parks. With a combination of funds from several contributors, including Forest Park Forever, American Golf, Dr. Norman Probstein and the City of St. Louis, the course was able to be restored and continues to be a marvel today. (It is joined on the other side of Forest Park by The Highlands, which offers 9 holes, a fully operational restaurant and the only driving range located in the City of St. Louis.)

Hall notes that he is extremely pleased with the way Forest Park has transformed over the last 70 years.

“I hope Forest Park Forever continues to provide the beauty, fun and safety of this Park for every walk of life,” he says.

Telling the Story

Through the years, the golf course in Forest Park has seen several unforgettable names cross its path —  Tiger Woods, Lee Elder and Calvin Peete to name a few. And while all of those names have made their mark on the sport of golf, it is those often forgotten who most deserve to have their stories told. The original “Boys in the Park” are pioneers who loved the game, who wanted to build fellowship and with black people who had a passion for golf, and teach those who wanted to participate. Whether or not they knew they would be the unsung heroes of black golf in St. Louis is unknown. But from the looks of it, the mark they’ve made is immeasurable. 

“This was Floyd’s concept, this was his baby,” says Healey. “I’m so glad I could help him because it was his passion to tell this story. When you see someone with such passion and you’re able to help them achieve their goal, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Hall expresses gratitude for the evolution of black golf, and appreciates that he has been able to touch the lives of readers across the region.

“I’m so happy that people have been able to read this book and read about their families, their golfing fathers and grandfather,” he says. “We’ve lost many people from that time, many my friends, some of whom are younger than me, so I’m just happy that we get to share these memories and moments.”

When asked what he wants readers to take away from the book, Hall says, “I want people to feel joy, beauty, and good golfing. Who knows, maybe 50 years from now, someone will wipe the dust from this book and still be proud of what we wrote.”