Doc Simkins has been gone going on 17 years now. But at Gillespie Golf Course, he’s still very much alive.
“Doc Simkins was the man,” Ralph Miller says over the clacking of dominoes. When the weather’s fine, Miller and a few other guys set up their tiles on the shaded, beat-up picnic tables overlooking the ninth hole. They call themselves the Tree Boyz. “Everybody went to him,” Miller says, keeping an eye on the game. “My play?”
“You want to talk, you need to move to another damn table,” grouses another player. Miller waves him off. “Tennis, golf, Doc did it all,” he says. Politics, too. They called him Doc because he was a dentist, but he would become better known for something else. Something that started after the police came to this course to arrest him. “Sent him to jail,” Miller says with a slight, knowing smirk. “Heh.”
Out in the parking lot, Jimmy Moore rolls up on his golf cart when he hears someone mention Simkins. “I knew Doc,” he says. “Caddied for him.” Caddies are long gone at Gillespie, but Moore’s still around, doing odd jobs for the course in retirement. He recalls how Simkins always had something funny to say: “Might rub you on the head and say, ‘How you doin’ today? You got a bag today?’ You’d say no, and he’d say, ‘I’m gettin’ ready to play, grab mine.’”
Moore’s brother-in-law Fred Pritchett is playing Gillespie on this day, too. Growing up, he caddied the course, and he was here when Simkins was arrested on December 7, 1955. He remembers watching from the caddie shack as Simkins and five other black men walked to the sixth green. “The sheriff came up in front of them and said, ‘Don’t hit that ball,’” Pritchett recalls. “Doc told them, ‘Get out of the way.’ They hit that ball.”
• • •
Dr. George C. Simkins Jr. was not the kind of person who just let people win. Not even his own son. Over the course of his life, Chris Simkins says, he only beat his father twice. At any sport. “Lots, lots of trash talk,” Chris says. Tennis was his father’s best game, but golf was often his focus. Chris remembers his father at the golf course, hitting practice shot after practice shot. Then he’d go to the putting green, then the driving range. At home, he’d chip in the backyard. He swung clubs in the living room, and he studied the pros on TV. As a result, the Simkins house was full of trophies; shiny tributes to Doc’s prowess filled a half-dozen cases and lined the stairway. “We ran out of room,” Chris says.
But first and foremost, Simkins was a dentist, following his father into the profession. After graduating from Dudley High School in 1940, he left town for college and dental school, and returned nine years later. For five years, he worked for the Guilford County Health Department, and then opened his own dental office in 1954. Most of his customers were black, or white people who didn’t have much money. Sometimes they couldn’t pay. That was OK. “He would work on anybody,” Chris says. “Other dentists would not accept those patients. He would.”
Every Wednesday at noon, without fail, Simkins closed his office, came home for lunch, changed into a polo shirt and slacks, and, by 2 o’clock, he was on the golf course.
But not Gillespie. In the 1950s, Gillespie was for whites only. Designed by one of the men responsible for creating Augusta National and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the course allowed black boys and men to caddie, but never to play. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that, in essence, separate accommodations for blacks were inherently unequal, municipal spaces like golf courses and tennis courts remained segregated across the South for a decade or more. For that matter, so did many public schools.
“It took a long time to do what the Supreme Court said in 1954,” says Henry Frye, an acquaintance of Simkins, and a lawyer who would become the first (and so far the only) black chief justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Efforts to integrate Gillespie had started even before Brown. In 1949, a group of black golfers demanded the right, as taxpayers, to play the newly opened Gillespie Golf Course. In response, the city leased the property to a private company for a fee. The company made the course for members and their guests only.
Those members were exclusively white.
Over the years, more black golfers tested the waters at Gillespie, trying to sign up as members or asking to play, only to be turned away.
And then came Doc Simkins.
• • •
December 7, 1955, was chilly, 42 degrees with a light breeze, but Simkins and five friends were determined to play some golf. They could play Nocho Park Golf Course, the black course only a few blocks away. But Nocho was shabby. Long grass, rough greens. The stench from a nearby sewage plant was strong. So the six men walked into the Gillespie clubhouse ready to pay the fee. The man working the counter snatched the sign-in book before they could touch it. “You can’t play here,” he told them. Calmly, the men put their greens fees on the counter — 75 cents each — and walked outside to tee off.
The irate pro caught up with them a few holes later. Simkins told him: “We’re out here for a cause.”
“What damn cause?” the man asked.
“The cause of democracy.”
The pro, then the police, followed the men hole to hole. Instead of putting his club back in his bag between shots, Simkins kept it in his hand, ready to defend himself. He was rattled — pulling shots to the right — but he knew he had to continue. The group played through the ninth hole and then left. Hours later, a black policeman tracked down all six men and arrested them for trespassing. The real crime, it seemed, was golfing while black.
To many people, including Pritchett, the young caddie who was watching, that moment of courage felt small at first. Bigger things were happening elsewhere: Rosa Parks had been arrested just a week before, and Emmett Till had been murdered in Mississippi four months before that. In context, a half-dozen arrests over a round of golf seemed to be a lot of fuss over a game.
A month later, a city court judge told Simkins and the other men to plead guilty, pay a $15 fine, and forget about it. Instead, the group took their case to Superior Court, where they faced an all-white jury. During the trial, Simkins’s lawyer discovered that two jurors had played Gillespie, and called them as witnesses. The men said that they weren’t members or guests, but had played at the course without a problem. The attorney for Gillespie had argued that the club was members-only, and this new admission seemed to shoot a hole right through his argument.
Even so, the six men were found guilty of trespassing and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Simkins’s lawyer kept appealing and eventually filed a federal complaint. A U.S. district court judge sided with the Greensboro Six, a moniker that had started to stick, and ordered that the course be integrated.
Then, two weeks before the order was to take effect, the clubhouse at Gillespie mysteriously burned down. Rather than rebuild it, the City of Greensboro condemned the entire course. It also closed the course at Nocho Park. Moreover, the city removed the sod from the front nine at Gillespie and began to store parks and recreation equipment on the land. Greensboro’s best municipal golf course had been turned into a junkyard.
• • •
“That’s how I got started in civil rights,” Simkins would later say. He joined the NAACP and became president of the local chapter in 1959. Soon after, a local businessman, Ralph Johns, suggested that Simkins take a seat at the local Woolworth’s in an effort to get served at the whites-only lunch counter.
Simkins said no.
“There’s no way in hell I’m going to get in any more stuff than I am right now,” he recalled to the Greensboro News & Record. “I’m catching hell with the lawyers, I’m catching hell with the whites, and I’m catching hell with the blacks, who think I’m going too fast,” he said.
Johns found four freshmen at NC A&T who would do it. The sit-in movement born at that lunch counter on February 1, 1960, quickly spread across the South. Simkins gave the students the support of his NAACP chapter. “If I had gone up there and sat down,” he said later, “it wouldn’t have materialized like it did.”
Meanwhile, the golf case had worked its way to the highest level of the legal system. In 1959, four years after the arrests, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear it. Simkins asked Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who’d argued Brown and would later go on to be a Supreme Court justice, to take his case. Marshall declined. The case, Wolfe v. North Carolina, would be a losing effort, Marshall said, since Simkins’s previous lawyers had forgotten to include information about their federal court judgment in their legal briefs. It was a glaring mistake, and Marshall didn’t want to sully his record with a case that he predicted, correctly, would lose in a 5-4 decision. But in a scathing dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wondered why North Carolina would want its citizens arrested and thrown in jail for enjoying its recreational facilities. That opinion was enough to shame Gov. Luther Hodges into commuting the sentences of the Greensboro Six in 1960, so they could avoid jail time. With that, the Gillespie golf case was over.
Simkins had lost.
And yet, because of that loss, Simkins turned his attention to a different way to win: voting. At the time, Greensboro only had about 5,500 registered black voters. So Simkins went to NC A&T, Bennett College, and Dudley High School, and registered teachers and students. Then he and others went house to house, registering black men and women, one at a time. Steadily, the number of registered black voters in the area more than doubled, to 12,000.
Next, Simkins launched a letter writing campaign to tell those new voters whom they should elect. The councilmen who had voted to close down the city’s recreational facilities needed to go, he said. “Do you intend to open up Gillespie Park so that everybody can play there?” read one flyer. “Otherwise, we’re not going to vote for you.”
The campaign worked. A new crop of politicians replaced members who had voted to close the golf courses, swimming pools, and other facilities. And, on December 7, 1962, seven years to the day after Simkins and his friends had played nine holes at Gillespie, the course finally reopened. To everyone.
Simkins was the first one to tee off.
• • •
Ralph Miller insists that while the golf story is important, the tennis story is even bigger. Everybody forgets about that, he says, but Simkins integrated the city pools and tennis facilities, too. Through court action, he desegregated Greensboro’s hospitals and schools as well. With his newfound political clout, Simkins also changed the makeup of the city council, guaranteeing that black neighborhoods had local representation. It helped that Simkins was a dentist, says former Chief Justice Frye, and didn’t have to answer to any boss but himself. Simkins’s competitive spirit, which Frye experienced regularly on the golf course, kept him pushing for more. “Once he made up his mind, I don’t care what anybody else said, he was right,” Frye says. “George wasn’t one of these people who believed in waiting for things to change.”
Jim Melvin, who grew up across the street from Gillespie and would later become Greensboro’s mayor, says Simkins never ran for office himself because he believed it would have diminished his influence. “A lot of politicians are self-serving — he was not personally self-serving. He was trying to positively change the system,” Melvin says. “He was our Martin Luther King.”
Through it all, Simkins continued to see patients, although he’d stop to talk politics from time to time. (“He’d get up to come talk to me and some poor soul would be sitting there for 20 minutes with his mouth open,” Melvin says.) And always, on Wednesday afternoons, the dentist would close up shop to play golf. He continued to play tennis tournaments, too, and was ranked fourth in the state in the men’s 65 division when he died in 2001. Persistence and dedication were hallmarks of his character. “Over and over, when the Greensboro Community sought to tackle its Jim Crow specters, the community’s cry was ‘Let George do it,’” one obituary began. “Over and over, George did it.”
• • •
Gillespie Golf Course is only nine holes now, but it’s still cheap to play, and challenging. “That’s number seven, the hole that I hate,” Moore says, pointing from his golf cart. “But it’s a good hole.” He has a nickname for the top of the green, where dreams of birdies go to die: Hell. “If that’s where you are,” he says, “that’s what you’re in.”
Many of the golfers puttering along the paths here are older black men who once caddied at courses around Greensboro. In some ways, it was a good job, Moore says. “You got to talk to doctors, lawyers, and they gave you some good advice about how to make it in the world,” he says. Now, these men pass along what they know to the kids who come here to learn.
Back at the picnic tables, the Tree Boyz are wrapping up. Ralph Miller, it turns out, was talking too much. He lost the game of dominoes. But he can’t stop talking about Doc. Somebody asks: What if he’d never come along? What if he’d never golfed here? Never gotten involved? Miller thinks for a moment. “He would have come in time,” he says with certainty. “It was his time.”
In 1955, a dentist and five of his friends played a round of golf. They were black. The course was white-only. What happened next changed the course of one man’s life, and in turn, helped integrate an entire town.