The Quiet Pioneer

Gentleman golfer Solomon Hughes Sr., led a quiet revolution to help integrate the game.

August 30, 2022 | 0 min.
By Joseph Oberle

On June 27, 2022, the local African American golf community of south Minneapolis held The Solomon Hughes Sr. Legacy Memorial event at Hiawatha Golf Club to rename the clubhouse after legendary golfer Solomon Hughes.

Local dignitaries, including Hughes’ son, Solomon Jr. (Soli), spoke on his father’s behalf before giving way to a golf exhibition by a group of young black golfers. Those golfers can see the name adorning the clubhouse, but do they know of Hughes’ efforts to break the color barrier in Minnesota golf and on the PGA Tour? 

“The renaming of the clubhouse will be important for young golfers, whether black or white, who come to [Hiawatha],” Soli Hughes says, “It’s important to know there was a guy who went through a lot of adversity, still won some tournaments, was a family man, held himself high and loved the game.”

Solomon Hughes’ name isn’t mentioned often in golf clubhouses or his image seen on the Golf Channel each week. But his story is integral to the growth of golf and should be known to all who love the game.

Birth of a Legend
Solomon Hughes Sr. was a quiet trailblazer. Tough, resilient, determined and perseverant, Solomon played the long game in changing golf, and paved the way for others such as Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and even Tiger Woods, who came after him.

Solomon was born in Gadsden, Ala., in 1908 and faced adversity early in life, as his father passed away when Solomon was just seven years old. He shared responsibility in his family and continued to make family his priority throughout his life. 

But Solomon always made time for golf. He acquired a job at Gadsden CC as a caddie when he was 12, and the game hooked him deeply. He worked hard and rose in the ranks to assistant pro and ultimately caddie master, thanks in part to regional pro golfer Eddie Miller, who saw some promise in young Solomon and mentored him in the sport.

“My dad rose to be caddie master and it was clear the country club trusted him in the pro shop,” Soli says. “He got along well with a lot of the white club members and he had an interest in the game. Eddie just took him under his wing and gave him some golf tips. Although, he did not teach him his swing. My dad’s swing was self-taught.”

Solomon dug his swing out of the dirt thanks to his love for the game and a strong work ethic. When he wasn’t working at his job, he was working on his game. Later in life, Soli caddied for his father, who would be on the course by 7 a.m. hitting a hundred balls prior to a round. Before a tournament, he’d walk the entire course to see how it was set up and how the wind would affect it. And when he taught others the game, Solomon tried to impart the same ethos.

“He would tell me, ‘Junior, you have to practice,’” says Soli, who never really took to golf but became a six-time state record-holding speed skater in his teens. “’You have to practice to win; you have to practice to be good. There’s no way around it.’”

Solomon’s golf resume made that lesson hard to argue with. In his early 20’s, Solomon was playing professional events in the United Golf Association (UGA) and winning his first title, the National Negro Open, at age 26 in 1935. He became a top player in the league and was ranked highly in tournaments into the late 1940s.

Family First
Solomon’s success in the UGA attracted the attention of boxing champions Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, while both were serving in the army. Solomon gave them golf lessons and they became fast friends, to the point of Louis inviting him on the road as his personal instructor after World War II. But Hughes declined the opportunity, having recently moved his young family north in 1943 to escape the harsh segregation and discrimination of the Jim Crow South.

“Solomon Hughes gave the Bronze Tournament momentum,” says Darwin Dean, a retired technical project management professional from Wells Fargo, who’s been president of the Upper Midwest Amateur Memorial Bronze Tournament since 2011. “He had a bunch of hackers out there trying to learn to play golf, and he gave them instruction at a professional level. [He] told Joe Louis ‘I want to spend more time at home with my family, so I can’t be your personal trainer.’ He was a man who knew the value of being at home and raising your family.”

Dean said Solomon brought relevance and revenue to the Bronze Tournament. Friends such as Louis came to play and many others came with him. As a pro, Solomon never competed in the Bronze (which began as an amateur event), but he taught many who won it how to play the game. 

“He loved the game so much that he was willing to share tips with anybody,” Soli says. “He taught a lot of black golfers when he came to Minnesota. He joined the Twin Cities Golf Club, which was a consortium of black golfers, and gave a lot of golf lessons to the players.”

Solomon and his wife, Bessie, took their two young daughters Antionette and Joyce (they would have another daughter Shirley before Soli) north to find an improved racial climate, greater educational opportunities and a better life in Minnesota. But they found Minneapolis wasn’t as racially enlightened as they’d hoped—particularly on the golf course. At the time, no public or private courses would hire Solomon as a pro, despite his qualifications.

Solomon worked, instead, as a pullman on the Great Northern Railway and a skycap for Northwest Airlines to support his family, but struggled to make headway in the sport that still segregated black golfers. He found solace at his beloved Hiawatha GC, where he continued to practice, play and perfect his craft even though he was not allowed entrance into the clubhouse; Bessie made him sandwiches for lunch that he quietly ate on the building’s front steps.

“He never spoke about the things that happened to him. He never brought it home,” Soli says. “When he was at Northwest, I witnessed a white guy calling my dad a derogatory name, and my dad didn’t flinch. He took the bags and walked into the airport, and he never spoke of that.”

The Closed Open 
Solomon continued to travel and play tournaments (including three successive UGA wins in 1945), but like other black golfers, he was refused entrance into events run by the PGA Tournament Bureau—which maintained a Caucasian-only policy since 1934. Solomon was 40 in 1948 and qualified for the St. Paul Open at Keller Golf Course, but was denied entry because he didn’t belong to the PGA, which wouldn’t grant him membership.

Other black golfers of the time, such as Bill Spiller, Ted Rhodes and Madison Gunther, filed a lawsuit over similar treatment at the Los Angeles Open, stirring up long-hardened soil. Although the PGA dug in their heels, a movement had begun, and Hughes and his friend Rhodes continued the fight at the St. Paul Open. Though both qualified, Hughes and Rhodes were denied entry to that 1948 event.

Cecil Newman, editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper, jumped into the fray, pointing out the discrimination and how the major Twin Cities dailies’ scant coverage missed the mark. Newman alleged that the PGA had printed tickets for the St. Paul “Open” but changed its designation to “invitational” after receiving the black players’ entry forms.

“The black press highlighted people like Solomon,” says Charles Hallman, a recent US Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame inductee who has written about Hughes for the Spokesman. “A lot of people don’t know golf is big among black people because they always had to play in a segregated setting. So anytime black golfers accomplished something the black press would highlight it.”

After Hughes and Rhodes were denied entry into the St. Paul Open again in 1951, the Spokesman, joined by the Open’s sponsor (the St. Paul Jaycees) and Joe Louis, turned up the pressure on the PGA. Although Hughes didn’t want to take the fight public, a lawsuit was filed in the golfers’ names—and the PGA finally allowed Hughes and Rhodes to play in the 1952 St. Paul Open. (The obdurate PGA waited another nine years before removing the Caucasians Only clause from its charter.)

According to his son, Solomon internalized his struggle and simply went back to practice. “You can’t win if you quit,” Soli heard him say. Unfortunately for Solomon, when he finally teed it up at the Open in ‘52, he was 45 years old and his best competitive golf was behind him.

“He never talked about it, but I would think that after fighting so hard to get in the St. Paul Open, it had to affect him,” Soli says. “He won his first tournament at the age of 26, so, by the time my dad’s 45, 20 years have gone by. He was really denied the opportunities to compete competitively.”

Still, his efforts can’t be denied, as each pioneer stands on the shoulders of those before them. It’s not often big, dramatic events that change the world, rather the accumulation of many small, courageous acts that lead to a Charlie Sifford playing on Tour, Lee Elder playing the Masters and Tiger Woods becoming the biggest name in golf.

“I’ve never met Tiger Woods, but if I did, I would ask him if he knows of Solomon Hughes. Lee Elder, yes, he broke the doors open, but Solomon Hughes broke doors open for Elder. And Lee Elder, it’s my understanding, knew that. He understood his history."

“It’s the little things. Rosa Park gets credit for desegregating buses but somebody else did it before her. So, there’s always somebody that does something that doesn’t get the notoriety, but they set that tone and somebody else breaks it open,” Hall said.

A Lasting Legacy
Through it all, the game was Solomon’s respite and his inspiration. He kept practicing and playing golf at Hiawatha until he died of cancer in 1987. He didn’t get to see Tiger’s 1997 “win for the ages” at Augusta, but, according to his son, spent his last few months watching only golf on television. On the day before he passed, Solomon requested a trip to Hiawatha to soak it in one more time.

“I’m glad they’re honoring him because he’s not just a dutiful father but a professional golf champion,” Soli says. “He was a pioneer for golf rights because he tried to help other golfers. And at Hiawatha, he was instrumental in changing the clubhouse policy.”

Solomon Hughes’ name emblazoned on the clubhouse of a course that serves a growing black community of golfers—a course currently fighting to remain open—is a fitting epitaph to a golfer who spent his life quietly pushing through closed racial doors. 

“I love that the name of the course, Hiawatha, is a native name. It should always stay Hiawatha,” Dean says. “However, not just the clubhouse, but the Learning Facility should be called the Solomon Hughes Learning Center.”

“He was a quiet trailblazer and one of many,” Hallman says. “The world needs more like Solomon Hughes.”

Indeed, there’s more work to do to make the game equitable for all. But would Solomon Hughes Sr. be proud of this tribute to the progress he helped set in motion?

“If he were alive today and looking at the clubhouse,” Soli said of his reserved father, “he would simply say, ‘Well, that’s all right . . . that’s all right.’” 

Joseph Oberle

Joe Oberle is an award-winning author, sportswriter, and has been the managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine since 2002. He’s covered the Minnesota Vikings, the NFL, Minnesota Twins and spent six seasons as publications manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he co-authored “Unstoppable: The Story of George Mikan.”

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