John Shearer: Discovering Long-Forgotten Carver Golf Course

  • Monday, September 26, 2022
  • John Shearer

When I was an avid junior golfer in the 1970s, I followed closely all the goings-on related to golf in Chattanooga.

I grew up playing at Valleybrook Golf Club near where I lived and was familiar with the other local clubs and courses, even if I did not get a chance to play them all.

However, never in the last 50 or so years had I ever heard of Carver Golf Course. But it was a course right here in Chattanooga over where the Carver Community Center is now off the 600 block of North Orchard Knob Avenue.

I had initially learned about it only earlier this year during an interview with former Riverside High coach Leroy Alexander about the great Riverside High basketball program of the 1960s and ‘70s. He had referenced the course in a side conversation.

The Carver course had been set up after World War II as a place for blacks to play golf in those days when segregation still existed locally, but the game was becoming more popular for everyone due in part to the emergence of TV. Many blacks around the country had become interested in golf, and there was even a National Negro Open held regularly.

Finding much information on this course named after pioneering black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver was somewhat difficult, though. Napierra Alexander, a public relations coordinator with the city of Chattanooga, tried to help me find some people who had long been connected with Carver Community Center and who might know, but that proved difficult due to the passage of time.

About all I was able to find, other than Coach Alexander’s memories, came from some old Chattanooga city directories on file at the Chattanooga Public Library downtown. The first year it was listed in the city directory was 1950. The entry said the professional or manager was Robert Lee Hill, and he lived on Airport Road with his wife, Robbie S.

It was evidently a city of Chattanooga-operated facility, perhaps meant as a companion to the public Brainerd Golf Course that had been open since the 1920s as a local course for whites.

It is not known if he was considered a pro or had other park-related duties, but the listing has a “c” by his name, which was done in those days of segregation to denote he was colored, or African-American.  

That was the only year he was listed in the directory or that the course was listed as having a manager. The last year the course was mentioned in the city directory was 1955, so it is not clear how much longer it existed. It could have continued without being listed or in more of an informal manner, with the city keeping the grass mowed and perhaps providing minimal oversight.

And likely by the 1960s, Brainerd Golf Course had been open for black golfers to play, so Carver became obsolete in a way, even though a recreation center has continued there for decades, and the former course land is now greenway space.

Coach Alexander grew up on the other side of McCallie Avenue before graduating from Riverside in 1967, and he remembers as a younger child walking several blocks past Engel Stadium to play pickup football on the golf course land and would see the golfers.

“I would sit on Citico Avenue and watch the guys play,” he recalled.

I went by Friday and parked my car at the Carver Recreation Center and walked around the roughly half mile loop of open grassland dotted by a few trees and lined on one side by a creek. It would have made a great golf course and makes for a great greenway today.

I was the only one there and enjoyed the nice early fall day. I saw fall yellow wildflowers, a black walnut that had fallen to the ground, and -- behind a few trees and some grass -- the trickling creek, which must flow into the main Citico Creek. Citico Avenue was also elevated, which would have made a nice viewing spot of the golf course, as Coach Alexander found out as a youngster.

I did not realize until I got back home, but there is also some greenspace on the other side of the creek alongside Cleveland Avenue and across from Orchard Knob Middle School. A formal ballfield is also across Cleveland Avenue from the rec center.

This is a real gem for a part of town that has unfortunately been classified as lower income in recent years, and I think I could visualize where close to nine holes could have gone.

Coach Alexander was not sure if it was a full nine holes, but he recalls recognizing a few of his current or future teachers at the time playing, and that most of the golfers were more professional members of the black community.

He recalls seeing people like Morris Chapman, who went on to become an assistant principal at Riverside; a coach Cranford who taught at Orchard Knob; Orchard Knob principal Ed Fain; and Luther Shockley, a shop teacher at Park Place, the still-standing building off M.L. King Boulevard.

Those and a Joe Johnson and others were very positive influences on him, he said.

“If it weren’t for some of those guys, where would I be?” Coach Alexander said with emotion. “They were my mentors. My father wasn’t at home, and they were good for me.”

Coach Alexander also remembers hearing that some avid black golfers locally at that time would also go and play at black courses in cities like Atlanta in those days of segregation.

It is not known if any of the pioneering early black golfers around the country like Charlie Sifford or possibly Lee Elder played the Carver course.

Perhaps the best local black golfer – at least before the turn of the 21st century – was Frank Swopes. A look at his obituary following his death in 2020 at the age of 79 said he grew up in Decatur, Al., before moving to Chattanooga, so it is not known if he played the Carver course.

He was still perhaps a little bit of a rarity, but within a few years plenty of blacks would begin to play at all the local courses.

Jim Dent had inspired locals by winning the first Gold Cup Classic pro tournament at Valleybrook in 1983 in a tournament in which Calvin Peete, another pioneering black golfer, also competed.

And then, of course, Tiger Woods came to town as a youngster for the 1991 U.S. Amateur and then won the 1996 NCAA golf tournament at the Honors on his way to greatness. By then, people obviously realized skin color did not matter in golf.

Coach Alexander does some volunteer work at New Monumental Baptist Church and said some golfers came to a summer youth camp program and provided some instruction to try and introduce the game to the kids.

He thinks such programs – including what First Tee does at the old Hickory Valley course site also now used as a practice facility by UTC – would give youngsters an additional sport to occupy their time and teach them some worthwhile lessons.

And he knows the old Carver Golf Course was a positive for the Chattanooga black community in the 1950s and possibly beyond.

“This golf course got a lot of black guys into golf,” he said. “It was an unusual sport at the time.”

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