As one of only six black women to play on the LPGA Tour, Renee Powell has set a precendent of integrity, hardwork, and grit. On Saturday and Sunday, BBC Sport will honor the accomplishments of Powell and others in a documentary entitled “Driving Change – Golf’s Battle for Equality.”
Powell knows that battle all too well. She joined the LPGA in 1967, shortly after Jim Crow supposedly stopped being enforced. Elizabeth Brabbel, Chaplin at Wake-Robin Golf Club — the oldest African American Women’s Golf Club in the United States — recalls Powell’s struggles vividly.
“I admired her spirit, that she was able to stay out there because I’m away of the cruelty that she experienced,” Brabble said. “She was there in the heart of racism and discrimination and you see, that kind of thing had just become institutionalized in this country.”
Powell was only the second black women on Tour. She followed the footsteps of Althea Gibson, who was the first black professional golfer after joining the Tour in 1963. Powell played professionally for 13 years and competed in over 250 tournaments, accumulating one win and a top-20 finish at the Women’s PGA Championship.
While that victory and the rest of her success is worth celebrating, it’s what she went through to get there that will be remembered this weekend.
“I would get a lot of threat letters on my life,” Powell said in a clip from a BBC Sport’ trailer. “A couple of times they would try to run me off the highway as I was driving. It was the 60’s, I mean they were still lynching black people in the South.
“I remember calling home and crying the first time I got a threat letter on my life and telling my parents I thought they would tell me to come home and they didn’t. I thought, ‘Wow,’ evidently they don’t think someone is going to jump out from behind a tree and shot me.”
Those letters wouldn’t stop, and Powell brought them to the attention of more people around her. When she brought them to the tournament director, she received the same response.
“I remember going to our tournament director and showing him the letters and he just said, ‘Well there’s nothing we can do about it,’” Powell said. “I thought, ‘These people are going to kill me and there’s nothing they can do about it?’ I guess they never really thought something would happen, and it didn’t.
“I thought about so many people that had come before me, and I’ve always felt very strongly that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and there are people, who just, did so much to allow — to give others freedom.”
While Powell honors those before her, those who came after her only did so because of the path she and Gibson laid. It was not until 1995 that another black women would play on tour, and only a handful of others followed.
In a sport that was mostly accessible to rich white men, and arguably still is today, Powell wasn’t the only pioneer in her family. Her father, Bill Powell, is the only black man to not only design, but build, own, and operate a golf course. Clearview Golf Club — located in Canton, Ohio — is the culmination of the qualities that Renee Powell inherited.
Renee Powell has been honored in the National Afro-American Golfers Hall of Fame (1986), the National Black Golf Hall of Fame (2006), the African American Golfers Hall of Fame (2007), and received the Women of Power Legacy Award from Black Enterprise in 2016.