If you’re a black American, you can run for president, die for your country, marry a white person and adopt a white child, sign a multi-million dollar pro sports contract, or become a Supreme Court justice.
But become a member of Little Rock’s two most exclusive country clubs? Good luck—at least until now.
Racial issues slumbered away on the manicured golf courses of the Country Club of Little Rock and Pleasant Valley Country Club until a few months ago, when part-time governor and full-time presidential candidate Bill Clinton was photographed playing a round of golf at CCLR with Little Rock lawyer Mark Grobmyer. The national press, in particular The New York Times, quickly seized on the club’s all-white membership list, typecasting it as a bastion of Old South mores, and Clinton was excoriated by state and national black leaders for setting foot in the place.
Two months later, you still won’t find a black member at either the Country Club or Pleasant Valley—though, as members are quick to point out, black guests play tennis and golf, attend functions, and dine at both clubs frequently.
As private clubs, CCLR and Pleasant Valley are free to admit whomever they choose. All-white golf clubs around the country were spurred to change since 1990, after the outcry surrounding the discovery that Shoal Creek Country in Birmingham, the site of that year’s PGA Open, had no black members. Successful lawsuits have been brought against some exclusive clubs where million-dollar business deals are cemented over 18 holes and drinks in the clubhouse. For blacks in Little Rock, exclusion from the top two country clubs has been one of the invisible barriers to full membership in the city’s professional and business community.
Ironically, efforts are underway at both clubs to recruit black members. The drive to bring in the first black at the CCLR started more than a year ago—long before the most recent media over the club’ s membership policies. According to several current members—none of whom would speak for attribution—members Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and Bill Bowen, Clinton’s stateside chief of staff, are in the process of sponsoring a local black man for membership. Hussman and Bowen, along with current club president Jack Williams, declined to comment, but the application of Curt “Howard” Reed, a local economic consultant with offices in the Stephens Building, is said to have been “accepted for consideration” by the club’s Admission Committee. Reed was away from his office and did not return telephone messages for this story.
Two sponsors are required for an application, according to a summary of CCLR bylaws included in the club’s membership roster. Each application is then considered by an admissions committee made up of the club board members. Once the applicant is approved by the committee, his or her name is posted on the club bulletin board “so that members may have an opportunity to comment on such application.” Membership is limited to 500 “active” members, so even after approval, new members may have to wait for a spot to come open. The initiation fee ranges from $20,000 to $25,000 for different categories of membership. There’s a lower charge, for example for “junior”
memberships and out-of-town club members. Monthly dues range from $100 — $200. Members report that the application process is somewhat cloudy.
“First you have to get your application considered,” one longtime member explains. “Most people don’t make it that far. Then you go onto a list. The application may move off that list, it may stay there forever, or it may just drop quietly off after some period of time.”
When asked about the apparent delay in processing Reed’s application, another member chuckled, “Hell, it took me four years to get in.”
Perched on its summit with its sweeping view of the Arkansas River sweeping past downtown Little Rock, and boasting one of the finest golf courses in the state, the Country Club of Little Rock retains its image as a genteel enclave for the wealthy. Founded in 1903, the club started out an organization for the landed gentry and merchant princes of central Arkansas. The early membership rolls read like an index of the most prominent Little Rock names of the era: Fred I. Brown, S.J. Beauchamp Jr., Raymond Rebsamen, J .N. Heiskell, Deadrick Cantrell, W.M. Kavanaugh. One of the earliest mavens of the club scene was Hayley M. Bennett’s wife “Scrapp,” known as the “Dowager Duchess” of Little Rock.
In the 1940 club yearbook, Hayley Bennett recalled that in the first decade of the century, “Our orchestra was a husky negro boy who played the piano well, long and loud.”
Virginia Alexander of Scott recalls her father, A.L. Alexander, taking his black sharecroppers up to bivouac on the Country Club ridge and finish out the golf course. For many years the city’ s streetcar line ran from downtown to Country Club station, then known as “White City,” on Kavanaugh. The club membership has always included wealthy farmers and businessmen who simply liked to play golf, dine, and drink at the club as well as those who joined for the social aspects. These days, according to older members, some of the social aura has worn off.
“It’s lost its social status,” comments Virginia Alexander, 85. “It used to be the place in Little Rock—now they’ll let anybody in as long as they’ve got $25,000. Doesn’t matter if they’re orange or black or pink.”
In the 1970s the effort to bring Jewish families into the Country Club was initially stymied, after publicity similar to the current coverage. Later, three Jews—Alfred Kahn, Jimmy Moses, and Gus Blass—were accepted in the usual discreet way. That, club members say, is how the first black members will gain entry as well: quietly, and in the club’s own good time.
The process has been accelerated, however, by a group of members who have expressed concern in recent years over the absence of blacks, and the drive to actively solicit an application from a black was launched as early as 1990. In response to the Clinton flap, club officials have said that the process is underway, and will not be hurried by the media. Indeed, the unwillingness of members to be quoted by name on developments at the Country Club is almost universal. “Some people say that the community is one thing, and a private club is another,” comments prominent attorney Herschel Friday, who is on the Board of Governors of Chenal Country Club as well as being a member of the CCLR. “And while I do believe that individuals have the right to associate with whom they choose, this issue [of race] is such a divisive one for this community that I don’t think you can separate the two.”
“It’s going to happen in time, and it’s time now for it to happen,” comments another member. “Publicity won’t help, and may hinder, that process—if there’s too much public discussion, whatever minority opposition is out there could crystallize.”
Meanwhile, out at Pleasant Valley, the same process is said to be moving forward, while the newest upscale golf-and-tennis club, Chenal Country Club, took pains to include black people on its initial membership list. At least one black person, Ada Hollingsworth, is on the board of Chenal. Private downtown clubs such as the Little Rock Club have long included minority members.
While the popular image of the Country Club of Little Rock as a refuge for portly millionaires who sip martinis and trade racial jokes in the Men’s Bar persists, members insist that, if that was ever the case, it is so no longer.
“Let’s face it——people do die,” says the first member. “Things will change up there as what you might call the mossbacks fade away. Whether it’s happening fast enough, well, I don’t know.”
The Country Club is still a place where young women with rich daddies make their annual debuts, where shirts without collars are considered inappropriate apparel for the golf course, and where unmarried women are termed “Special Lady” members. But as the younger generation, raised in the late ’50s and ’60s and exposed to vastly different racial attitudes than their parents were while growing up, supplies “Junior” members, the atmosphere of the club will inevitably change. In talking to these younger members, one still hears statements like “It’s not like thousands of blacks have been applying to get in,” and “Take the blacks that work up there—some of those guys are my friends.” But there is also embarrassment at the public scrutiny of the club’s racial policies, and an evident
desire to change things. One second-generation member points out that, while there have been Jewish members for two decades, few Jews have joined since the 1970s. Another member admits he was stunned when he invited a Jewish friend to play golf and discovered that, indeed, some prejudice still lingers in the locker rooms and dining rooms.
“Evidently, it still exists,” the member says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
But there’s no question that the Club will never be the lily-white stronghold it once
“As society evolves, the Club has to evolve,” comments an attorney and CCLR member.
Still, the question remains: why would a self-respecting black care to join a place where prejudice apparently lingers?
“For me, I’ve not had the kind of experience that would make me think it’s like that,” counters Lee Frazier, executive vice president of operations at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center, another prominent black person who frequents the club as a guest and has been mentioned as a prospective member. Frazier adds that he is “too busy” to join anyway, “But if the people up there, who are friends of mine, said ‘Come on in,’ what should I do? Should I look at all this history, and say this is a racist club, or should I take their invitation at face value, and base it on my own experiences up there? I guess I’ve chosen the latter.”
One younger member, who expressed embarrassment at the current flap, summarizes the current waiting game: asked if he thinks blacks will join soon, he replies, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”