Overlooked No More: Joseph Bartholomew, Golf Course Architect

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Since 1851, many remarkable black men and women did not receive obituaries in The New York Times. This month, with Overlooked, we’re adding their stories to our archives.

As an African-American youngster — as young as 7 years old, some say — Joseph Bartholomew caddied in the afternoons at the private, whites-only Audubon Park Club golf course in New Orleans, earning $3 a day. There he learned the game by watching the men whose bags he bore on his shoulders.

Bartholomew prided himself on his caddying skills, particularly in finding errant shots.

“It distracts a golf player to lose his ball,” he was quoted as saying in the reference book “African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary” (1994). “I never lost one golf ball a year.”

Audubon’s club professional, Freddie McLeod, who would go on to win the 1908 United States Open, taught Joseph how to repair clubs and eventually offered him a job.

The catch?

“He told me,” Bartholomew later recalled, “‘I can’t give you $3, just 50 cents.’”

Most people wouldn’t dare take such a pay cut, or such a risk. But, Bartholomew said: “I figured I can learn more from Mr. McLeod than I can as a caddie. So, I took it.”

Learn, the young man did.

Bartholomew would one day become the greens superintendent and give lessons — as many as 12 per day at $2 per lesson. And beyond that he would become an admired golf course designer.

But it would take decades for him to get to that point. And through it all — as he rose from caddie to club repairman to superintendent to course designer — Bartholomew, a black man in the Jim Crow South, was barred from playing at Audubon or any other segregated private club, even those whose courses he designed.

Joseph Manuel Bartholomew was born on Aug. 1, 1888, in New Orleans to Manuel and Alice Bartholomew. He was ambitious from a young age. He once asked a teacher if there would be any objection to his completing two grades in one year. “She said no,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1966, “so I went ahead and skipped.”

Bartholomew was in his 30s, in the early 1920s, when local golfers, impressed with his interest in the game and his work as a groundskeeper, collaborated to send him to a golf architecture school in New York, where he studied with the golf course architect Seth Raynor.

“Whooo, but I was surprised,” Bartholomew told Fortune magazine in 1949. “They gave me a whole bunch of money and told me to go and find the best course in the world and bring it back.”

He did even better, returning with the design for a course composed of holes modeled on famous ones at courses throughout the United States and Scotland.

The golfers liked it, and hired him to build it. Opening in the ’20s, it was called Metairie County Club, and he was named its first club professional. But while he was permitted to give lessons, he was not allowed to play a round of golf there. Indeed, he was hired to design and build several more golf courses in the area for white golfers but barred from playing them.

Undeterred, he eventually built a seven-hole course on property he owned in Harahan, La., a Mississippi River town west of New Orleans. And in Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans he built Louisiana’s first municipal golf course for African Americans.

By the time he died on Oct. 12, 1971, at 83, Bartholomew had been celebrated as a golf course architect by Sports Illustrated. In 1972, he was posthumously elected into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame. And in 1979, the City of New Orleans renamed its Pontchartrain Park golf course the Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. Municipal Golf Course.

After building his courses, Bartholomew rented his construction equipment to white contractors. And just as he had learned golf by watching the players he caddied for, he learned the construction business by observing, on the job, the men who had rented his equipment.

Working with, and not just for, white men was unusual for black men in the South, but Bartholomew had become accustomed to it. “Don’t try to outsmart the white folks — they’re smart,” he told Fortune. “Be honest, listen and learn.”

And make money. Bartholomew started his own construction enterprise, focusing on drainage, foundations and landscaping. He landed contracts with large public and private housing projects in New Orleans, as well as for office buildings and factories.

He didn’t stop there. He invested contracting profits in a fledgling life insurance company named for Frederick Douglass. It was losing money when he bought it in 1940 and took over as president. Nine years later it was thriving, headquartered in a building that Bartholomew had bought.

Bartholomew turned his attention to real estate full time when a man for whom he once caddied came to him to be a partner on a land-improvement venture. They bought hundreds of acres of rough land and, using Bartholomew’s equipment, drained and upgraded the property. They then sold it, with some parcels going for more than 10 times what they had paid.

In what may have been Bartholomew’s ultimate venture, he built an ice cream plant for $75,000. By 1949, it was raking in profits.

Bartholomew rarely saw a risk that wasn’t worth taking, and he told Fortune he believed that that had been the key to his success.

“That’s the difference between me and most of the rest of the colored people,” he said. “They won’t take a chance because they’ve been skinned before. I take ’em all the time.”

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