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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Simkins, April 6, 1997. Interview R-0018. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Suing to desegregate a golf course

Simkins describes his effort to desegregate a Greensboro golf course. Despite incompetent lawyers, he managed to bring the case before the Supreme Court, where it lost on a technicality. This passage illustrates some of the ways whites and blacks struggled over desegregation; particularly dramatic was the arson that destroyed the course's clubhouse and prompted condemnation of the entire property.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Simkins, April 6, 1997. Interview R-0018. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
It sounds like you had known Jack Greenberg previous to when you filed the suit. What was your relationship with him? Were you active in the NAACP?
GEORGE SIMKINS:
I had gotten involved in civil rights on December 7, 1955. The city had two golf courses. One was Gillespie, and the other was Nocho Park. We tried to get them to fix up Nocho, and they never would do it, yet they were slipping out and fixing up Gillespie. Of course, Gillespie was for whites, and Nocho was for blacks. The city leased Gillespie for a dollar to a white group, one of whom was chairman of the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department, to keep blacks off of it. He set up rules that you had to be a member, or the invited guest of a member, to play out there.
KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
So he turned it into a private club, basically.
GEORGE SIMKINS:
Basically, but it really wasn't, because any white person could go out there, pay their money and play. But they told us that it was a private club.
KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
I'm surprised there was a public golf course for blacks at all.
GEORGE SIMKINS:
There was. We had a little nine-hole course out there. Six of us one Wednesday afternoon when I was off, we went out there to play. They arrested us for trespassing. We put our money down. They had the black policeman to come by that night and take us to jail. My father, who was a dentist, went our bail. We were found guilty in city court, and we appealed it to the next level. In the meantime, we went into federal court and got a declaratory judgment, and the federal judge was Johnson J. Hayes. He said that anybody who pays taxes and has to go out and fight for this country ought to be able to enjoy the recreational facilities provided by the city, and said as far as he was concerned, the city was still in the saddle, although they had leased this course. He said this course was to be integrated in three weeks. In about two weeks time, the clubhouse mysteriously burns down, the fire marshals come out and condemn the whole course, because the clubhouse was burned down. We had two lawyers, a man and wife team, and they had gone into federal court and got the declaratory judgment for us, where the federal judge gave us a strong declaratory judgment. But on the trespassing case, they forgot and left the declaratory judgment out of the record when we appealed it to the state Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court found us guilty, because the lawyers had made a mistake. I went up to Thurgood [Marshall, chief legal counsel of the NAACP], that's how I met Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg. I went up to New York and asked Thurgood, "We need you, because I can't fight these lawyers, and the city and everybody by myself. I need the NAACP to help us." He looked at the record, and told me, "Your lawyers ought to be the ones to go to jail." At that time, we'd been given an active jail sentence. "They have screwed this case up. I'm not going to mess my record up by taking a case like this, because you cannot win. You're going to lose it by one vote, Tom Clark is going to vote against you in the Supreme Court. But I will pay for your printing costs." We went all the way to the [U.S.] Supreme Court, and sure enough, we lost by a 5-4 decision. Earl Warren was the Chief Justice, and he said, "I cannot understand how something so important could be left off the record. If this was on the record, there would be no question about whether you all are guilty or not." Because our lawyers messed up, we lost it by one vote.
KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
So this case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States?
GEORGE SIMKINS:
Yes, this was our golf case. Warren gave such a strong dissenting opinion that Luther Hodges, who was governor at the time, commuted our sentences. We had to pay a fine, and didn't go to jail. But that's how I had contact with Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg and the lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
KAREN KRUSE THOMAS:
I didn't know golfing could be so dangerous!
GEORGE SIMKINS:
Everything was dangerous back then. Anything you tried to integrate was.