Photo (l-r): Sylvia Hicks, Kevin Purcell, Thurman Simmons

 

A year ago, the Township of Scotch Plains dedicated a room in its renovated Shady Rest Clubhouse at Scotch Hills Country Club in the memory of John Shippen, the first American-born golf professional and six-time U.S. Open contestant. Shippen was the head professional at Shady Rest from 1924 until his retirement in 1960.

The reality of the “John Shippen Museum” is a testament to the tireless 30-year journey of Ruby and Thurman Simmons, the co-founders of the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation. It was the Simmons’ mission to have Shippen recognized as America’s first African American golf professional.

Before the Museum was closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was being visited often by groups of schoolchildren and interested parties from throughout the East Coast. The museum includes artifacts, clippings and portraits of Shippen, who as a playing professional out of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club at age 16 finished in a tie for fifth place in the 1896 U.S. Open that was played there.

“It’s become an attraction,” said Thurman Simmons, who is hoping that the museum can re-open in the near future.

Shippen was among the inaugural class of inductees into the New Jersey State Golf Association Hall of Fame in 2018. His Hall of Fame plaque was formally presented to the museum on Nov. 9.

“This museum is a legacy for myself and my wife. I’m proud of it, because I never thought I would live to see this,” said Thurman Simmons, whose most prized possession is a putter made by Shippen in 1900 that bears his name.

“People thought I was crazy. This quest goes back to 1988. I’ll never forget that one history professor at NYU told me this effort would never amount to anything.”

The Shippen Foundation conducted the John Shippen Academy at Scotch Hills - a charity supported by the NJSGA Youth Foundation - for 12 years until volunteer coach John Perry moved to Florida recently. Currently, another coach is being sought so the Academy can reopen.

Each year, the Shippen Foundation bestows two $1,000 scholarships to defray the cost of college tuition to deserving high school golfers from Union County or anywhere in New Jersey. (Contact Thurman Simmons at 908-322-5486 for more information.)

The Foundation also raised funds to first locate, and later, place a headstone above Shippen’s grave at Linden’s Rosedale Cemetery. The Foundation has petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to honor Shippen with a postage stamp.

The Simmons’ family efforts have resulted in Shippen being recognized by the USGA as America’s first golf professional. In 2009, the PGA of America posthumously awarded him his PGA membership card.

What is also important to the Simmons family is setting the record straight that Shippen, born in 1879 in Washington, D.C., is recognized as an African American. Many accounts depict him as half African American and half Native American. It is true that Shippen’s father, a minister, brought the family to Long Island in the late 1880s to preach to the Shinnecock tribe.

“John was born to an African American mother and father. He twice married Native American women, and that’s where the confusion comes in,” Thurman said. “He was about 10 years old when the family moved to Southhampton, Long Island. The family remained there and John worked as a caddie on the golf course.”

“There is still a lot of misinformation out there,” said Simmons, 76, a native of Newark who moved to Scotch Plains in 1967.

“People do not want to give John Shippen his credit that he was the first African American professional.  In a sense, he superseded Tiger Woods, who wasn’t 16 years when he became a pro. Shippen was the first African American professional to play golf,” he said.

Scottish professional Willie Dunn noted that Shippen was a natural athlete and club members felt confident enough in Shippen’s abilities to pay his entry fee in the 1896 U.S. Open. Some professionals nearly created a racial controversy, threatening a boycott. But the USGA held firm that the tournament would go on without them, and that Shippen would be allowed to play regardless. Shippen was tied for second after the first day, but an 11 on the 13th hole the second day nullified his chance of winning and he finished tied for fifth place. He ended up competing in six U.S. Opens, the last in 1913. Until Ted Rhodes played in the 1948 U.S. Open, no African American had competed since Shippen.

Shippen, who died in Newark in 1968, came to Shady Rest as the head professional in 1931, staying on until his retirement in 1960. During that time, the club was the country’s first Black-owned and African American golf and country club. World-famous entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Count Basie and Cab Calloway performed in a large room inside the clubhouse.

Originally a farm, the property has an interesting history. In the late 1890s, it was sold to the Westfield Golf Club and converted into a nine-hole golf course with the main farmhouse serving as the clubhouse.

Two decades later, the Westfield Golf Club collaborated with the Cranford Golf Club to create the Echo Lake Country Club in nearby Westfield.

For years, a close-knit community of black residents lived on both sides of the golf course. On September 21, 1921, a group of black investors known as the Progressive Realty Company, Inc. purchased the former Westfield Country Club and created the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club.

In addition to golf, members could enjoy tennis, horseback riding, and skeet shooting. Legendary Althea Gibson of East Orange, who won 11 Grand Slam tennis championships and was the first Black woman to compete in - and win -  the U.S. National Championships (now called the U.S. Open), played regularly at Shady Rest.

Hand-in-hand with the dedication of the John Shippen Museum is the $500,000 renovation project of the Shady Rest Clubhouse, located at Scotch Hills C.C. The Preserve Shady Rest Committee has been headed by Ms. Sylvia Hicks since it was formed in 2013.

Thanks to the Committee’s perseverance, former Scotch Plains Mayor, Kevin Glover was one of many who realized the significance of the Shady Rest and supported the renovation project. To its credit, the “Preserve Shady Rest Committee” has made its mission one of sharing and preserving the history of the facility.

It has petitioned the New Jersey Historical Society for recognition as a state landmark as well as filed an application to make the Shady Rest clubhouse a national historic landmark.

“The building was unsafe, and the project began in an effort for a new roof. Now, there are new floors, new electrical work, new heating and air conditioning as well as new bathrooms. You name it, they’ve done it,” said Ms. Hicks, who has worked tirelessly on adding a Shady Rest picture display among the hallways.

The renovated building was originally a two-room farmhouse built in the 18th century. It has expanded exponentially upward and outward over the years. When open, the edifice has provided the setting for wedding, showers, and basically any type of social events. It is popular with senior citizens who meet there regularly to enjoy a number of activities.

“Before the renovation our concern was people coming into the building, it was dangerous,“ Ms. Hicks said. “Now, it’s wonderful to see it completed. In the past few years, the building has become a hub of activity. The Township of Scotch Plains has recognized it is a true treasure.”

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