When it is suggested to James Black that he have his picture taken behind the Rogers Park Golf Course clubhouse, he hesitates. "Can we take it out front?'' Black said. "I don't want the back door in the picture. I don't go through back doors anymore. I go through the front door.'' As an African-American golfer during the late 1950s and '60s, Black, 68, has seen enough racism for two lifetimes. He has been through too many back doors. He has slept in his car too many times and eaten too many meals in the caddie shack. There were many courses he and his fellow African-Americans couldn't play. "Even though these were municipal golf courses, we couldn't play on them,'' Black said. "Had to change clothes in our cars. Couldn't get a practice round in." But golfers such as Black did have one refuge during that era: Rogers Park in East Tampa.
Between January and March, Rogers Park was a hub for African-American golfers. The best, including Black, Charlie Owens, Ted Rhodes, Gordon Chavis, Jimmy Taylor, Charlie Sifford, Dick Thomas and Cliff Harrington, gathered there.
With so many in town, Taylor helped start the Mid Winter Classic in 1963. It was part of the United Golfers Association, or "The Chitlin Circuit,'' a mostly African-American tour that dates to 1925. The Mid Winter Classic lasted until the late '70s or early '80s, according to the Tampa Sports Authority, and was revived last year.
This year's tournament takes place March 5-6 at Rogers Park. It coincides with the National Black Golf Hall of Fame inductions.
"One thing about Tampa that was unique for me,'' said Black, a native of Charlotte, N.C., "was that back in the late '50s and '60s, there were no hotels that we could stay in. The people in Tampa were very hospitable. They took us into their homes. They fed us. They washed for us and cooked for us just like we were at home.
"That news spread, and everyone started coming down.''
Prior to 1952, Rogers Park was actually a park. It was named after its biggest contributor, G.D. Rogers. The plot of land off Sligh Avenue and 30th Street was the only picnic area for African-Americans in Tampa.
In 1947, Willie Black (no relation to James) asked then-Tampa mayor Curtis Hixon if they could turn part of the park into a nine-hole golf course. Hixon agreed, and Black gathered volunteers to take down trees and shape the land into a course. The work was brutal, and after two years, Black's volunteers had shrunk from 65 to two.
Black solicited a group of caddies from Palma Ceia Country Club in South Tampa to help finish the course. Five years after starting the project, Rogers Park Golf Course was finished. In 1954, the course expanded to 18 holes. Black became the course's first general manager. The road leading to the course is called Willie Black Drive.
In 1976, the newly formed Tampa Sports Authority took over management rights. A $400,000 renovation included changing some holes and installing an irrigation system.
In 2000, a $4 million renovation took place. The irrigation system was replaced, the greens were rebuilt to USGA regulations, and some of the routing was changed. In 2002, the new clubhouse was built.
"To come back here and see the change makes me very proud,'' James Black said. "It's sad to see some people don't appreciate that change. To come out here, you're walking on history.''
Black also was a baseball player. He was drafted by the Pirates but didn't last long in the minor leagues.
"They wouldn't let me ride the team bus,'' Black said. "I had to find my own way to the games. I walked out of there. I was already good at golf, so I went in that direction.''
In the late 1950s and early '60s, if you wanted to prove yourself as an African-American golfer, you had to go through James Black. During that time, he won every event the UGA had. He won the Mid Winter tournament twice, the last in 1970, when he beat future PGA and Champions Tour player Jim Dent.
"I was the Tiger Woods,'' Black said. "That's exactly what they'll tell you.''
Another player from that era, Charlie Owens, agreed.
"He could've been one of the greatest players in the world,'' said Owens, who won the 1969 Mid Winter.
Black made history in 1964 when he shot 5-under 67 in the first round of the PGA's Los Angeles Open (now called the Northern Trust Open). It was the best score by an African-American at the tournament until Woods' 65 in 1998. He was 21. It was the first round of his first PGA Tour event. He also qualified for the U.S. Open in 1964. In 1965, Black played in 14 events but won less than $12,000 before losing sponsorship.
Black was not the first African-American to earn a tour card, and he didn't use it very long. A few years after getting his card, Black decided to go to PGA school to learn about the business of golf. He later spent 14 years working at MacDill Air Force Base and opened a driving range on Hillsborough Avenue and Hoover Street.
Black was part of the Black Golf Hall of Fame's first induction class in 1986. The Hall of Fame will induct three more Saturday night in Tampa, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., Rose Harper and Dr. Calvin Sinnette.
While Black never won a PGA tournament, he is proud of the trail he and other players of his era blazed.
"The whole thing was having a place to play,'' Black said. "African-Americans don't appreciate the work we have done in the past. They think these facilities just opened up. We opened these facilities up on the tour. The stops we made were the first time blacks have ever played there. I have a lot of pride in that, being part of that movement.''
'A privilege to play'
Today, Black has homes in Tampa and Charlotte, N.C. He is retired but gives motivational speeches about breaking down barriers.
"For me, it was a privilege to play golf,'' Black said. "I was inside the ropes. I tell kids that all the time. If you know who you are, you can do anything you want to. Stay positive, and you can get it done.''
Through it all, Black has remained positive. He knows his place in history even if others have never heard of him. Black doesn't play much golf anymore. But that doesn't stop him from hanging out in the Rogers Park clubhouse, talking to players young and old about golf's past and future.
"There were opportunities here for me,'' Black said. "It was special for me to feel the love Tampa had.''
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com.