The Nomads History
The Nomads Golf Club was founded in 1950 by a group of doctors and lawyers from Chicago; black men who loved the game, even though the game did not seem to love then in return. A “Caucasians Only” policy enacted by the Professional Golf Association meant that most golf facilities had a license to turn African Americans away without a question, even public golf courses in public parks. And so, because the original members were forced to travel far and wide to find courses that would allow them to play, they adopted the name The Nomads. They were golfers without a home.
Gene Woods, a Chicago lawyer and the club’s first president, was the organizing force behind the early years of the club. Noted members included Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin where his 4-gold medal performance demolished Adolf Hitler’s theory of a master Aryan race. Owens’ Olympic teammate, Congressman Ralph Metcalfe was also an early Nomad along with Dr. T. K. Lawless, 1954 winner of the NAACP’s Spingarn Prize recognizing his work as a dermatologist and medical researcher specializing in the treatment of syphilis; and, Frederick Wayman “Duke” Slater, a Chicago judge and former college All-American football player at Iowa University. Slater was a 10-year veteran of the early years of the NFL, playing 99 games and six seasons as an all-star before the league banned black players.
“The Nomads in those days was a very elitist type of organization,” according to Wendell Cox, a dentist and entrepreneur from Detroit who served several years as the club’s president. “Guys like Homer Wilburn, and Harold Thatcher and T.K. Lawless…and all of those name people. People like Ralph Metcalf, Jesse Owens. It was just absolutely top-notch guys who played golf all over because there was no home course available to them.”
Dr. Cox, a native of South Carolina, learned to play golf growing up in the segregated south. Years later as a Nomad he found other black men who had shared similar life experiences and achievements. Wendell also witnessed a level of class consciousness among the original club members that was strategic – a way to break the color barrier – but also disturbing.
“They loved the game, and they wanted to play with …and I again I hate this but they wanted to play with friends of theirs. Their kind, right? There were a lot of ex-caddies around and there is nothing wrong with ex-caddies. They were all right people. Fine people. But that wasn’t who these guys wanted to be associated with.” Dr. Cox continued to tell a blunt truth in the style that his fellow Nomads had come to expect from him, “I don’t mean to tell you they were elitists to the point that they wouldn’t be very friendly with everybody, but they just didn’t want to be with everybody. They wanted to play golf with contemporaries, their friends…and that was the whole idea.”
To a man, the Nomads were successful men who had survived the daily challenge of being black and male and American in the first half of the 20th Century, the so-called American Century. They shared a belief that their achievements in life and their passion for the game set them apart, and they made no apologies about wanting to enjoy a middle-class life. Waldo Cain, a cardio-thoracic surgeon from Detroit, became a Nomad in the mid-1960s and rubbed elbows with many of the founders.
“I remember going to my first meeting like the meeting here tonight,” Waldo recalled nearly 40 years later, as the Nomads gathered in 1998 at Wild Dunes near Charleston, South Carolina. “I first got there they had a big poker table going. And the guy running the poker game was the bishop of Chicago,” for Waldo this memory and its retelling spawned a big laugh, “and sitting next to him somewhere the guy was the Under-Secretary of State George L.P. Weaver. And on the other side was Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf. Boy they had a bunch of guys!” *(See editor’s note)
Dr. Cain became one of several iconic members of the second generation of Nomads, a brilliant surgeon with a wit as sharp as his scalpel. He never forgot the days he spent with Jesse Owens.
“I had a lot of fun,” he laughed, “And I played with Jesse and I remember somehow somebody asked Jesse, ‘how old you are?’ I didn’t have the nerve enough to ask him,” He confided, “but I wanted to know. Boy, you talk about this guy! He was 57 when I first came into the Nomads, and he still had the body of a finely-honed athlete at 57.”
By trading on the celebrity of their most high-profile members, and the overall professionalism of the men in the club, the Nomads slowly expanded the roster of courses where they were welcomed. While seldom acknowledged in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, this push to gain equal access to all public facilities was a critical spoke in the wheel of the movement. The Nomads forced the question: why shouldn’t black professionals enjoy the same benefits of their labor, and the same entitlements of middle-class life as their white counterparts? As Rosa Parks was refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery Alabama, the Nomads were insisting on their right to participate in all aspects of American life – the vanguard in the Raisin-in-the-Sun Revolution that infiltrated the American suburbs.
In 1955, Dr. Ted Mason was a leader in the push to integrate Cleveland’s most prestigious suburb, Shaker Heights, Ohio. He loved suburban life, and the lush golf courses of Cleveland’s East Side where he had a reputation as an amateur champion with a scratch handicap. Ted was eventually recruited into the club by members from Cleveland who had grown tired of the guys from Detroit and Washington winning all the time.
“My first meeting of the Nomads was in 1969,” Ted smiled as the memory flooded back to him. “And I remember Homer Wilburn was the secretary. The president asked for an overview of the previous year’s meeting, and I recall that Homer got up and he must have read for eight to ten minutes. He would turn one page over and then the next. And I was a bit curious, so I eased over in my chair and looked at him and then looked at the paper, and there wasn’t anything on the page. It was blank. He was just talking from memory. And I wondered to myself, ‘what kind of organization is this?’ It was fun-filled and kind of loose.”
Ted grew to love the Nomads, serving 17 years as the club’s president while winning seven club championships. In part because there was no shortage of characters.
There were guys like Dr. Ray “Yellow Bird” Hines, a blue-eyed soul brother from North Carolina who cussed like a sailor, dressed impeccably and always played Titleist 8s.
Dr. Jesse Chandler Sr, a physician from Oklahoma and chair of the golf committee who could tell a golfer’s handicap simply by observing his swing.
Dr. Blanchard T. Hollins from Houston Texas, a child prodigy who graduated from college at age 19, became an obstetrician and delivered more than 12,000 babies…and along the way never lost his “caddy swing.”
Or Dr. Jimmy Boyd Sr, a physician from Hampton Beach, Virginia who thrilled new Nomad members with his stories of caddying for Babe Ruth years and years ago – and Jimmy would say, “that son of a bitch could hit a golf ball!”
And the club’s original members loved to tell of the time that Tony Horton jumped in the pool at French Lick, Indiana and nearly displaced all the water because he weighed over 400 pounds. Big Tony managed to golf his ball quite well, even though he had only one arm…a fact which made his pool escapade even more memorable.
Together and away from the strictures of a world they sought to change in their daily lives, the Nomads could cut loose and relax. Jesse Chandler, Jr, an obstetrician from Chicago remembered how at a Nomad meeting the famed Chicago Alderman Cecil Partee was transformed.
“Cecil Partee, big time politician in my current hometown – in Chicago,” Jesse said, “Get down here, well Cecil was the biggest joke telling, fun drinker, card player…exactly. But he didn’t have to be nobody down here but CECIL. But he got back home and he had to be….“ Jesse pretends to tighten an imaginary tie, “Mr. Partee.”
The message was double edged: this was a safe play space for the brothers, but all titles and entitlements were to be checked at the door. “Everybody here is somebody at home,” Waldo Cain liked to say, “but here, you are just another f#@*ing Nomad!” – a salty articulation of Nomad culture that has become an often-repeated motto for club members today.
As the club celebrated the 50th anniversary (1950-2000), the oldest Nomad known to anyone in the group was Alceid “Cap” Breaux, who at 93 still liked to play 18 holes while walking and carrying his own golf bag. Cap also enjoyed a few Budweiser’s at the 19th hole, always insisting that he never took any medicine except for an aspirin for a whiskey headache. His health was a wonder to all, but by the summer of his 94th year he had seen many of his golf partners fade away.
“I have always been sorry of the friends that I lose,” Cap once said in a rare contemplative moment, “but I never put it up to weigh and balance why did HE take them and not me? I hate to say it but let him go! And let me stay!” he said, and then stopped as if he were a little surprised at himself. “I’m not glad he is gone, but I am glad I am here.”
As the end of the 20th Century approached the Nomads, like Cap Breaux, began to consider how the club had aged; and, how men who had once hit prodigious drives down the center of lush fairways were now losing distance and running out of time.
The Nomads had a problem: there was no pipeline of new blood to extend the club’s legacy beyond the collection of aging retirees who met each July. The situation begged the question: Was this a quant 1950’s-style male bonding ritual, an idea whose time had gloriously come to pass and then expired like a star exploding across the night sky? Was the Nomads an anachronism? A black-hand version of Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton on bowling night? Or, did this tradition hold value for several more generations of African American men staring at the dawning of the 21st century and an ever-changing America?
Jesse Chandler, Sr., also known as “Chief,” and Ted Mason, the club president, had an idea: they nominated their sons for membership.
Jesse Chandler, Jr was an obstetrician in Chicago; David Mason, an architect and entrepreneur living in St. Louis. Both were excellent golfers, close to their fathers and well-versed in the history of the Nomads. And even though the club membership had a preternatural resistance to just this sort of clannishness, both sons were admitted to the membership in the summer of 1990.
“One of the biggest compliments that my dad has ever paid to me personally is when he put my name up for nomination in his club this Nomads group,” Jesse Chandler Jr. observed during an interview in 1998, “and ever since I was a little kid he would disappear that last little week in July. He was gone to this group called the Nomads.” For many of the children of Nomads, Chandler’s memory of his father happily disappearing in late July struck a chord. “Hey, my dad’s a lifetime Alpha, I pledged Alpha. My dad is a Howard graduate, I went to Howard. My dad is a physician, I’m a physician. Okay? I never saw the pride in my dad’s eyes like I saw the night that his son was accepted into the Nomads.”
After a couple rounds of golf, a few drinks and some laughs the new guys were embraced and a youth movement was launched. David went on to capture four Nomad championships, and he and Jesse – Chief Jr, – became the embodiment of the club’s next generation.
Next Frank Cox, a dentist and businessman from Oklahoma and the club’s irrepressible secretary, nominated his son Kerry, an ophthalmologist from Los Angeles. Wendell Cox put up his nephew, Eric Bass – a radio executive from Detroit. James Gaskins, Sr. nominated his twin sons Michael and Jim Jr. Dr. Ervin Mason nominated his nephew, Ted’s youngest son Paul, a journalist and producer at ABC News. And, Harold “Stretch” Jenkins, a scratch golfer and two-time Nomad champion from Akron, Ohio nominated his sons-in-law James Wade and Joel Cornett.
Stretch Jenkins joined the Nomads in 1969. He stood 6’4” with a booming voice and a winning smile that he used to good effect in his daily role as the director of education for the AFL-CIO at Firestone Tire and Rubber. He also used his sense of social justice honed while working with United Farm Workers’ leader Cesar Chavez to convince the all-white Firestone Country Club to admit him as a member. Eventually, Stretch and Ted Mason teamed up to win the Firestone’s member-guest club championship, the first African Americans to etch their names on the wall plagues of that nationally renowned country club. When Stretch succeeded Ted as president of the Nomads in 1995, he fully embraced the youth movement. He also endorsed an effort to collect oral histories from the club’s senior citizens to permanently preserve the Nomads’ legacy.
And soon more families were represented. The Nomads also added Walter Douglass from Detroit, owner of Avis Ford in Southfield and a well-respected entrepreneur and author. Douglass became a three-time club champion, and eventually nominated his two sons Mark and Edmund. And there were other connections as well. Waldo Cain brought in physicians who had trained with him like Jerry Baxter, an emergency room specialist from Riverside California and outstanding golfer, who became the golf committee chair. Baxter brought in David Wooding, another southern California doctor who eventually became the club champion, a record-breaking eight times over. Jesse Chandler, Jr sponsored his colleague Dr. William “Woody” Woods.
The club also welcomed Dr. Kevin Smith, a nationally recognized plastic surgeon and Cornell Green, a prominent trial attorney, and James Big Ball Young all from Houston Texas; Craig Williams, a dentist from Atlanta who inherited the leadership of the golf committee after the untimely death of Jerry Baxter; Eric Mann, an executive with the YMCA in Jacksonville, Florida and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and two men who went on the lead the Nomads through these years of transition, Ron Cheek, a physician from Detroit and Walt Bowers, an obstetrician from Cincinnati.
As President, Ron Cheek ensured the diversity of the membership by enacting a geographic rotation cycle for the meetings – East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast in alternating years. The equity of this rotation has helped to bind members from the West Coast to what had traditionally been an East Coast focused group, a visionary accomplishment.
Under Walt Bowers’ leadership the club has continued to grow and stabilize while burnishing a national reputation, enjoying the spotlight of national media on “60 Minutes Sports” on Showtime, and an enhanced online presence with this website. Both Cheek and Bowers were assisted by outstanding support from Craig Williams’ golf committee, Kerry Cox’s efforts as site committee chair who has consistently pushed the boundaries of where the Nomads meet by finding the best facilities available, Julian Goode and Michael Gaskins – Nomad treasurers who have kept clear eyes on the bottom line, and Big Ball Young the membership committee chair who begins every presentation by making his resignation available though it will surely never be accepted.
The question remains – is this club an anachronism, a blunt tool left in the woodshed from 70 years ago, an affinity group for black men in a post-racial America? Evidence would indicate the contrary. Many of the same forces that brought the Nomads together 70 years ago – racism, fascism, systematic denial of basic human rights, mendacity and cowardice from our political leaders – have re-emerged in 21st Century America. As an organization born of a yearning for equity, inclusion and social justice in a challenging moment in American history when moral leadership and courage were lacking, perhaps the Nomads’ mission is just as relevant and resonant today as it was 70 years ago.
Theodore “Ted” Mason