Aronimink GC’s pro in 1899 was the USA’s first African American golf professional!

“DID YOU KNOW”
Aronimink GC’s pro in 1899 was the USA’s first African American golf professional!

John Matthew Shippen, Jr. was born in Washington D.C. on December 2, 1879. His father John Sr., was born into slavery in Virginia. When the Civil War ended he was a free man. He moved to D.C. and attended Howard University. Upon graduation he became an Episcopalian minister. In 1888 the church sent John Sr., his African American wife and children to the far end of Long Island to bring Christianity to the Shinnecock Indians.

The Shinnecock Hills Golf Club opened in 1891 and the golfers needed caddies. John and his brother Cyrus along with some of the Indian boys became caddies and some learned to play the game.

By 1896, with the US Open scheduled for Shinnecock Hills, 16 year old John Shippen was being proclaimed in newspapers around the USA. It was written that he was a long straight driver and could play all the shots. He was the holder of the Shinnecock Hills course record, having lowered the number set by then Shinnecock professional Willie Dunn, by six strokes. Dunn had given Shippen pointers on how to play the game.

When the 1896 US Open rolled around in July, Shippen was paired with Charles Blair MacDonald, 1895 US Amateur champion. Oscar Bunn, one of the Shinnecock Indian caddies was also entered. Some of the Shinnecock members paid their entry fees. When the British born professionals learned there was a black golfer entered they produced a signed petition, refusing to play. USGA President Theodore Havemeyer stated that there would be a tournament even if only Shippen and Bunn were in the field. The protesting players decided to play.

The tournament, one day of 36 holes, was won by James Foulis, a Scotland-born professional from Chicago with rounds of 78 and 74 for 152. Despite poor putting, Shippen posted a 78 in his morning round. In the afternoon he took 11 strokes on the 13th hole when his tee shot ended up on a sandy road, where it took several strokes for him to escape. He finished with an 81 for 159 and a tie for sixth and last money. Some years later he said the hole was an easy par four, but his drive was a little too far to the right.

After working as the professional at Maidstone Golf Club, Shippen became the professional at Aronimink Golf Club in 1899, for that one year. His brother Cyrus was his assistant. At times his employers, to justify his employment, would say that he was not a black man but of English/Indian decent. It was said and written that Shippen was related to John Raife on his father’s side and Pocahontas on his mother’s side, which was far from realty. Shippen himself had registered for that 1896 US Open as a Shinnecock Indian, to avoid problems. In later years in an interview with his daughter, she said her father was 100 percent black.   

As the professional at Aronimink, Shippen finished third in a driving contest at the 1899 US Open. He played in six US Opens, tying for 5th in 1902 along with his tie for 6th in 1896.  

For many years Shippen was the professional and course supervisor at the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. It was later Scotch Hills Country Club. In 1991 the John Shippen Foundation was created to offer golf instruction and competition for young minority golfers.  

3 thoughts on “Aronimink GC’s pro in 1899 was the USA’s first African American golf professional!

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  1. What a interesting snippet of golf history. That era was amazing with the development of both the early golf courses and clubs that gave birth to this special game.

    Great accounting once again Pete! .

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  2. Yet another example of your excellent research and reporting. Very interesting. Thanks. lamar r. lamar kilgore 2193 yellow springs rd. malvern, pa 19355 610-640-1611

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