Pioneers of the Game: Ann Gregory - The First Black Woman to Compete at a USGA Event
The history of golf in America, like the history of all of America, is immediately tied to the politics and prejudices of the time. As America has seen opportunities grow for all her citizens over the past century, golf as well has its own milestones in becoming a game for everyone. John Shippen, the son of an African American and a member of the Shinnecock tribe became the first man of color to play in a USGA event at the 1896 U.S. Open. Charlie Sifford became the first African American man to play on the PGA Tour in 1960, the same year that the PGA dropped its “Caucasian-only” membership policy. On the women’s side, Ann Gregory became a pioneer when she competed in the 1956 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and became the first black woman to play in a USGA event.
Early Life and Playing Career
Ann Gregory took an interesting road to golf. She was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi in 1912, but was orphaned just 4 years later after her parents died in a car crash. Gregory grew up in the house of her parents' wealthy former employers, working as a maid as she aged, before leaving the South with her husband at age 26 to the industrial city of Gary, Indiana. Before she left, her now former employer Mrs. Sanders remarked that people in the north would treat her poorly to which Gregory quipped, “Mrs. Sanders, you've prepared me very well for mistreatment.” That fiery attitude led to Gregory becoming an important member of Gary, Indiana’s black community, eventually becoming the first African-American on the public library board.
While in Gary, Gregory rekindled her earlier love of sports, first by picking up tennis and later golf. Her athleticism was easily apparent to everyone; she soon won Gary’s City Tennis Championship and was winning golf tournaments just 4 years after picking up the game in her early 30s. As she racked up more wins at segregated golf tournaments like the Chicago Women’s Golf Association Championship, the Joe Louis Invitational and the United Golf Association Championship (the UGA was the premier black national association), Gregory would also get her chance against white golfers at the 1947 All-American Open.
Breaking the Color Barrier
However, such integrated tournaments were exceedingly rare, and Gregory would continue to play and win the black championships for the next decade. She finally got the opportunity to play what was then the best amateur golf tournament in America for women, the U.S. Women’s Amateur, in 1956. Held by the USGA, the U.S. Women’s Amateur had never had a black woman competitor but decided to extend an invitation to Gregory as the reigning Negro Women’s Golf Association champion. Gregory decided to play the event, despite some criticism from the black community for skipping a UGA event and giving credence to the “superiority” of the USGA. The reaction from the largely white crowd was also less than welcoming. The tournament was match-play, and despite leading for most of her opening match, Gregory ultimately lost the match 2 and 1 to Carolyn Cudone. Still, the color barrier was officially broken.
Though the color barrier was broken, Gregory still had to contend with racism in further U.S. Amateurs, including the 1959 held at the Congressional Country Club outside of Washington, D.C. Due to its whites-only policy, Gregory was not invited to the opening banquet but still managed to win her first 2 matches before losing to Diane Hoke. Such brushes with racism were sadly not rare for Gregory, including being refused her reservation at a hotel in Tulsa during the 1960 Women’s Amateur, and a famous incident in 1963 where fellow competitor Polly Riley assumed she was a maid.
Legacy as a Fighter
That doesn’t mean Gregory took such treatment quietly. In fact, Gregory nearly single-handedly integrated Gary’s own public course in Gleason Park. The facility maintained a pristine 18-hole layout for white residents, while black citizens were relegated to a shabby 9-hole track. Gregory famously entered the white clubhouse in the early 1960s, paid a green fee, and informed the clerk that her taxes paid for that course and if they had a problem with her playing they could call the police. They never did and slowly more black players would play the course.
Gregory would continue to play the game into her 70s, competing in numerous Senior Women’s Amateurs and winning the 1989 U.S. National Senior Olympics at the spry age of 76 by a modest 44 strokes. Gregory would die the following year in her beloved city of Gary. A memorial to Gregory now resides at the South Gleason Park Golf Course, the same one she integrated over 50 years ago. She is remembered as a pioneer of the sport she loved.