GREENSBORO, N.C. — In the 1950s, golf courses in Greensboro were separate but nowhere near equal.
“Gillespie Park Golf Course at the time was the jewel of the city,” said Rodney Dawson, with the Greensboro History Museum. “It was redesigned by Perry Maxwell, the same guy who redesigned the Masters.”
It was white-only. Black residents had to play at Nocho Park. Local dentist, Dr. George Simkins, tried to get the city to fix it up, but they wouldn’t. In an oral history interview with UNC in 1997, he said the city leased the golf course at Gillespie Park for $1 to a white group. That group then ran this city-owned golf course like a private club, keeping Black folks off.
On Dec. 7, 1955, Simkins and some friends pushed back.
“He walked in with his guys. They paid 75 cents each and they played. The Resident Pro wasn’t there. He was away at lunch. The attendant wouldn’t take their money and he wouldn’t let them sign the registry. So they just left the money, grabbed their clubs, went out and started playing,” Dawson said. “The Resident Pro came back, angrily ran after them and followed them around. The local deputy sheriff came. They were cursed at. They told him they were out here for a cause and he said ‘what cause’ and just kept screaming. They kept playing. They made it about to the ninth hole and Dr. Simkins said forget it, let’s go home.”
They were arrested that night and charged with trespassing.
Later known as the Greensboro Six, they took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost, but the governor commuted their sentence. Dawson, who is the curator of education with the Greensboro History Museum, and a group commemorated the 65th anniversary by playing a few holes at Gillespie.
“I’m a proud product of Guilford County Schools. I went to Montlieu Elementary, Southwest Guilford High but I just knew a small semblance about Dr. Simkins Jr. and it kind of upset me. I said I should know more,” Dawson said.
“Me being a golf lover and this story starting in golf, I felt like more people, especially that love golf, need to know about what a golf course and actions there helped do for civil rights,” added Tim Quillen.
Quillen and Dawson are part of a group working on a video about what the Greensboro Six did that day called “$4.50 and Change.” That title represents the amount those six men paid that day.
“Our initial goal was a 4-7 minute video that tells this story,” he said. “We hooked up with Rodney and Rodney also was thinking what he wanted to do with this story was make a curriculum out of it for schools.”
It is now looking more like a 40-minute-plus documentary they hope will spark conversations from school classrooms to golf courses across the country.
“I felt like this was an opportunity for us to shine the light on somebody that was so instrumental in providing improvement for the social injustice of racism,” Quillen shared. “We think we can tell that story through the golf industry, which I think needs more and more of this right now. The golf industry isn’t as well known for having the right lens on some things. So if we can put a better view of race relations with golf as well, I think it’s an improvement for both.”
“I think this is a way, if you can incorporate someone that’s from your area — and that’s for any demographic — this is a way for you to find someone that’s from your area, he’s germane to this area, this story of perseverance, if he can do it you can do it,” added Dawson.
Fighting to desegregate the golf course was just the beginning of Simkins’ civil rights legacy. He also successfully led the charge to desegregate Moses Cone Hospital and led the Greensboro branch of the NAACP for 25 years.