Museum Moment: Sinnette’s Research Provides Rewarding Results

Mar 01, 2012

By Susan Wasser, USGA

Some 30 years ago, Dr. Calvin Sinnette of Arlington, Va., began extensive research on the history of the African-American golf experience. Cajoled and inspired by Robert King, a friend from his college days who was involved in his own research on the participation of African Americans in tennis, Sinnette took up the long, arduous task of writing a book about America’s black golfers.

“This is a story that has to be told,” said Sinnette, now 87-years-old. “The only way it’s going to be told is by somebody who knows something about it. And I felt an obligation to do that.”

As a pediatrician, Sinnette’s only published writing until that time had involved medical and health-related articles. Once committed, however, he enthusiastically plunged into the project, beginning with his research at the Library of Congress.

Charlie Sifford’s “Just Let Me Play” and the second and third volumes of Arthur Ashe’s “A Hard Road to Glory” inspired Sinnette to delve further. Also, the Library’s large microfilm collection of black newspapers proved to be a gold mine. The Amsterdam News in New York City, Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender and Baltimore Afro-American provided vital details despite the tedious nature of the work.

“Sitting up in front of that microfilm reader, going through page after page…that was grueling, grueling work,” said Sinnette. “Plus it was expensive – 25 cents for each photocopy.”

Sinnette spent hundreds of hours in exhaustive research in the manuscript division and magazine collection of the Library of Congress. He broadened his search for information by conducting interviews either face-to-face, by telephone or through a series of mailed questionnaires.

With a previously undiscovered talent for story-telling, Sinnette wove an intriguing and historic tale of the challenges, injustices and triumphs that evolved from the African-American golf experience. After 15 years of writing and research, his book, Forbidden Fairways, was published, giving a voice to the passion and perseverance of the talented golfers who struggled to play the game. By his own admission, the years he devoted to his research have provided him a “most rewarding journey.”

Sinnette’s passion for golf did not have typical beginnings. He was first exposed to the game while an Army base pediatrician stationed in Germany at the Furstenfeldbruck Air Force Base. His next-door neighbor, base commissary officer Donald Elmore, introduced Sinnette to golf. It was at Elmore’s urging that they began to play at Seldafing Golf Course, 20 miles south of Munich. For Sinnette, the challenge fostered an appreciation for the game that has endured.

“You have to play against yourself,” said Sinnette. “You are held to a certain standard and have to experience the kinds of challenges that are so enormously powerful, inviting and discouraging. It is the challenge that makes you want to experience it again and again.”

The years of comprehensive exploration and investigation transformed Sinnette’s home into a veritable research center. Books, magazines, papers and other research materials have multiplied and spread throughout his Virginia condo. Navigating through the paperwork often produces hidden treasures and long-forgotten notes.

Several years ago, Sinnette began to consider what to do with his personal library of materials. In November 2011, he decided to donate a portion of these materials to the USGA Museum’s African-American Archive.

“I chose to donate my collection of golf memorabilia to the USGA Museum after I became convinced that it would commit available resources to preserve and publicize the many items that reflect the contributions of African Americans to the game,” said Sinnette.

The contents of his donation span a spectrum reflective of materials that assisted in his research. The most important of these give an overview of professional and amateur African-American golf tournaments and club activities from the 1920s through the 1960s related to the United Golfers Association (UGA). These materials include rare books, tournament programs, magazines, correspondence, committee minutes, flyers and other historic documents. One of Sinnette’s UGA programs is currently on display as part of the “American Champions and Barrier Breakers” exhibit that celebrates the contributions of African Americans to golf.

The oldest item, a first-edition, 1897 book entitled; The Blackberries and Their Adventures Book, is by one of the notable American cartoonist/illustrators of the 20th century, Edward W. Kemble. The book portrays black children participating in sporting activities with negative stereotypical humor. Much of Kemble’s art is now considered racist, but the book was an important research tool for Dr. Sinnette.

Also included in his donation are several UGA tournament programs that span from 1935-1959. Contained within the pages of these programs are the names of past champions, as well as valuable historic information for anyone seeking to develop a chronological history. Rare issues of the United Golfer Magazine from the 1930s are also part of the donation.

Two letters are of particular note. One is correspondence to Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer who would go on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice, regarding the PGA’s denial of Bill Spiller’s entry in the 1948 Richmond (Calif.) Open. The other is a letter to Charles E. Brice, dated April 20, 1948, also in regard to the Spiller denial. These materials, along with other donated documents, helped Dr. Sinnette in the creation of Forbidden Fairways.

Sinnette today remains fascinated with this long forgotten history, from the unfair and abusive treatment of the game’s early black caddies to the emergence of superstar Tiger Woods.

Currently, his research revolves around Moss Hyles Kendrix, a public relations pioneer who sought to promote the African-American and minority communities as positive and powerful tools within America. Kendrix parlayed the sponsorship and endorsement of Coca-Cola to support many golf tournaments within the African-American community. He was convinced that African-American golfers were equal to their white counterparts and that they should have the opportunity to play in highly publicized tournaments that would showcase their abilities.

Will this exploration on Moss Hyles Kendrix result in another book?

“No, I do not intend to write a book on Kendrix, although I think there is need for something like a ‘Who's Who of African-American Golf,’” replied Sinnette.

It is obvious that there is still more research to be done and additional stories to discover about the rich history of the African-American golf experience.

Susan Wasser is the assistant manager of operations for the USGA Museum. E-mail questions or comments to swasser@usga.org.

Dr. Calvin Sinnette (left) spoke about the contributions of public relations leader Moss Kendrix during the USGA Museum's African-American Golf History Symposium on Feb. 18. The 87-year-old Sinnette began his research into the African-American golf experience over 30 years ago. (USGA Museum)


After over 15 years of research, Dr. Calvin Sinnette wrote "Forbidden Fairways," a book outlining the challenges, struggles and accomplishments of African-American golfers. (Sleeping Bear Press)


The contents of Dr. Calvin Sinnette's donation to the USGA Museum include rare books, periodicals, letters and tournament programs, like the one pictured above from the 12th Annual United Golfers Association National Tournament. (USGA Museum)