Shady Rest Golf and Country Club: A Cultural Beacon
Written By Kevin Casey. Photo (l-r): Sylvia Hicks, Kevin Purcell, Thurman Simmons
Not many golf clubs anywhere can say they were “the first” or “the best,” regardless of the criteria. New Jersey golf can boast at least a couple of these superlatives. One quickly comes to mind. South Jersey’s Pine Valley Golf Club is generally regarded by golf ’s most knowledgeable fans as home of the finest golf course in America, if not the world. But, for even that well-read crowd, the second superlative doesn’t come so readily to mind.
Just south of Route 22 in Scotch Plains between Plainfield Avenue and Jerusalem Road, in a sliver of green land among a sea of houses and small businesses, lies Scotch Hills Country Club. From 1921 to 1964, Scotch Hills was known as Shady Rest Golf and Country Club—the first Black-owned and operated golf and country club in the United States.
Shady Rest was a local social and sports center that grew into “one of the best-known clubs for golf, tennis, and social affairs for colored people in the United States,” according to a 1932 report. It was a popular venue for a wide range of cultural events that attracted middle class and well-to-do Blacks during the Jazz Age.
It was also the product of a segregated America that barred Blacks and other non-Whites from playing golf at public courses and at private country clubs. Unlike any other American club at the time, Shady Rest became a focal point for Black golfers.
“The Place to Be”
In the mid-1700s, Ephraim Tucker built a farmhouse on a 31-acre plot just outside Westfield. In the late 1890s, the property was sold to the fledgling Westfield Golf Club, one of New Jersey’s first golf clubs, and was converted into a nine-hole golf course with Tucker’s old farmhouse serving as the clubhouse. In 1910, the club lengthened the course to 3,312 yards and received acclaim as “the best nine-hole course in the eastern states.”
During this time, a close-knit community of Black residents lived on both sides of the narrow golf course. They created paths crisscrossing Westfield to do business and visit friends and relatives living in the neighborhood. Although they lived around the club, they were not invited to join due to the era’s prevailing segregationist culture.
After a second decade at its current location, Westfield members wanted to expand their course to 18 holes. With no room for expansion where they were, Westfield merged with another nine-hole operation, the Cranford Golf Club, in 1921 to create a new club a few miles to the east, Echo Lake Country Club, which thrives to this day.
That same year, a group of prominent Black investors purchased the Westfield Golf Club property. The new owners saw the potential to do something innovative and formed the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club to provide “for the recreation for young and old; where respectable men and women can come and enjoy the real and outdoor life, and indulge in wholesome, healthful sports, such as golf, tennis, croquet, horseback riding and shooting.” The Shady Rest brand quickly expanded beyond the neighborhood, aided by increasingly well-connected members. Shady Rest historian and keeper-of-the-flame Thurman Simmons described the club as “the mecca of African-American entertainment on the East Coast … this was the place back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. This was it on the East Coast.”
Among the legendary entertainers who frequented and performed at Shady Rest were Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, and Sarah Vaughan. And it wasn’t just entertainers showing up. Sociologist and activist W. E. B. Dubois was an active member. Tennis great Althea Gibson, who won a singles title at the French Open, followed by two at Wimbledon and in the U.S. Open, also won the Shady Rest doubles championship. It was at Shady Rest that pioneer Gibson also developed a golf game that eventually placed her on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. The former heavyweight champion boxer and best-known golfer of the era, Joe Louis, frequently teed off there.
It is fitting that the first American-born golf professional was the club’s head professional and greenkeeper. John Shippen, who joined the staff at Shady Rest in 1931, is considered today a pioneer in American golf. But at Shady Rest, he was the pro, clubmaker, and greenkeeper who lived for thirty years in a tiny room in the attic of the clubhouse.
The Birth of the United Golf Association
By the time Shippen became the professional at Shady Rest, he had become a leader of a group of Black professional golfers who would meet in various towns on the East Coast, pool some money, sometimes find a sponsor, and then play for the purse.
These were the years of Jim Crow segregation, when it was legal to deny golfers the opportunity to play simply because they were Black.
In New Jersey, Blacks had access to public golf, but in great swaths of the country that was not the case. Oddly enough, private club courses were often more accessible—many of these accomplished players were also caddies, and most private clubs would let their caddies play on Mondays when clubs were usually closed.
In keeping with some unfortunate patterns of the day, the PGA of America in 1934 inserted an article in its bylaws stating that the organization was “for members of the Caucasian race,” preventing non-whites from membership. If you were a Black golf professional, this was a trying time to ply your trade.
With so few options for Black professionals, Shady Rest became an oasis. In 1925, several of these players pulled together an inaugural “International Golf Championship Tournament,” held at Shady Rest. The success of this event contributed to the idea of staging an annual national tournament beginning in 1926 under the auspices of the “Colored Golfers Association of America.” This organization was renamed the United Golf Association (UGA) within a year.
The UGA became the forum that fostered the careers of Black players for years. With six U.S. Open appearances behind him, Shady Rest’s Shippen was probably the UGA’s biggest early draw, but the association eventually nurtured the games of well-known golfers such as Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller, who together brought suit against the PGA to end their exclusionary clause; Lee Elder, who became the first Black to play in the Masters; and eventual PGA tour winner and World Golf Hall of Fame member Charlie Sifford, who won the UGA’s National Negro Open six times in the 1950s.
The UGA remained viable until the PGA of America removed its “Caucasian-only clause” at its 1961 annual meeting and as desegregation measures opened up public golf courses to all golfers. As barriers to advancement were lowered, the original drivers for the UGA waned and the association ultimately ceased to exist.
A Bittersweet End
For similar reasons and at the same time, interest in Shady Rest began to recede. Scotch Plains Township, which had acquired the club property through a tax lien foreclosure in 1938, had leased the land back to the club. In 1964, the town took over sagging operations, renamed the course Scotch Hills Country Club and opened it to the public.
Shady Rest represents an important thread in the social fabric of the twentieth-century Black story. First golf club run by and for Blacks; critical in the creation of the UGA; and a cultural beacon for millions of Blacks during a dark time in our history, Shady Rest must remain a not-forgotten part of New Jersey’s shared golf story.
This article is an excerpt of Remarkable Stories of New Jersey Golf, a 250-page book reviewing the influence New Jersey has had on American golf, written by Kevin Casey and due to be released in 2022. For more information on the book, email email@example.com.
Editor’s note: For more information, please contact Thurman and Ruby Simmons, co-founders of the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scotch Hills Country Club, the Shady Rest Clubhouse and John Shippen Museum are all open to the public. For more information and hours of operation, call (908) 322-6700 or visit Scotchhillsgolfcourse.com