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An Imperfect Step Forward

A statue of Black golf-course architect Joseph Bartholomew looks over the New Orleans design bearing his name.

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WHAT RIGHT DID I HAVE to empathize with Joseph Bartholomew?

On any given Saturday afternoon, if I want to play golf, I play. Outside of the occasional pandemic, the only things holding me back are the rain or a yard that needs mowing, or maybe a child who won’t go down for a nap.

For his entire life, all Joseph Bartholomew wanted to do was to play golf. So often, a caste system of tradition, culture and legal white supremacy denied him.

Bartholomew—born in Louisiana not long after the dawns of both Jim Crow and American golf—rose from caddying at Audubon Golf Club in New Orleans to become one of his region’s preeminent golf-course designers. He apprenticed with Seth Raynor, built courses throughout the Deep South and overcame severe poverty to become one of his era’s most successful Black businessmen. In my mind, the defining irony of Bartholomew’s life was that he could design courses, and he could build them—yet he couldn’t play them. But how did he feel about it? Clearly the overwhelming difficulties of his time didn’t push him away from the game; he was around it until his final days. 

It was hubris to think that I—a middle-class white man, born a generation after the Voting Rights Act and a decade after Bartholomew’s 1971 death—might understand his struggle. I have never been told that my skin color stands between me and anything. Yet I couldn’t let it go. I began digging into his life story, but, unlike so many other influential architects, whose lives have been inexhaustibly chronicled, precious little was immediately available. When I discovered that he may have built a private golf refuge for himself and his Black friends, and that this course and its location largely remained a mystery, my curiosity graduated to a full-blown mission. 

Photo by Annie Flanagan

Google can’t even help with Joseph Bartholomew’s birthdate. The African American Golfer’s Digest says it’s Aug. 1, 1885; a New York Times obituary has it as Aug. 1, 1888; and a Fortune story from November 1949 says he was 59 at the time, putting it in 1890. But every account agrees that no later than age 12 (and possibly as early as age 7), he was a caddie at Audubon Golf Club, one of the South’s earliest and most influential golf meccas.

It’s unclear if Bartholomew ever graduated high school, but he was a quick study. By watching Audubon members, Bartholomew learned the game, albeit with an unorthodox swing that a 1930 article in the Times-Picayune newspaper described as “with a windup like a left-handed pitcher and a regular Larry Gilbert ‘shimmy’ thrown in.…His style looked all wrong, but he got results.” In time, his dedication and rapid improvement landed him a job as Audubon’s greenskeeper. And soon after former U.S. Open champ Freddie McLeod became Audubon’s head pro in 1910, he hired Bartholomew as his assistant pro. Over the next 10 years, Bartholomew kept the club humming: building golf clubs, tending greens, waiting tables and giving lessons. On at least one occasion in 1934, Bartholomew came within a stroke of tying Audubon’s then-record of 66. “Hell,” a New Orleans businessman told a reporter in the late 1940s, “Joe Bartholomew has taught about every good player in town how to play this game.”

Every account agrees that Bartholomew’s big break came in 1922. A group of Audubon members wanted to build a new 18-hole course in Metairie, an undeveloped swamp on the western edge of town. They had chosen an architect, and they were shooting for the moon: Seth Raynor, whose résumé already included the Country Club of Charleston, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and Shoreacres. Business was booming for Raynor in 1922—so much so, golf historian and Seth Raynor Society executive director Anthony Pioppi explained to me, that either Raynor had no men to spare or his cost for placing a foreman on site was prohibitively expensive for the new Metairie club. Either way, the members and Raynor arrived at a solution: The club would pay to send someone to New York to learn Raynor’s techniques, then come back and lead the build-out of his design.

The members didn’t hesitate: Bartholomew was their man.

On this point, there is some disagreement about both Bartholomew’s level of involvement at Metairie and the membership’s motives for sending him to New York. There are those who claim that Bartholomew merely put Raynor’s blueprints in the dirt; others say that the Metairie design was Bartholomew’s brainchild and Raynor unduly got the credit. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle. Metairie’s collection of template holes is a Raynor hallmark, but in several places Pioppi points to accents in Metairie’s design not typically seen in Raynor’s work: grass ridges cutting across bunkers, and small, wavy ridges running parallel to one another on otherwise flat ground, thrown in like dashes of hot sauce in a bowl of rice.

“That’s not Raynor,” Pioppi says.

There is no dispute, though, that Bartholomew’s work building Metairie—his first golf course—was extraordinary. “Beautiful but difficult,” the Monroe News-Star described it. When Metairie hosted the Louisiana state championship in 1928, the Shreveport Times newspaper called it “probably the best course in the entire state”—no small praise in an era when Audubon Park and New Orleans Country Club still ruled supreme.

Still, the entire episode bothered me. It seemed like the club’s members were happy to send Bartholomew to New York to learn Raynor’s design techniques when it saved them some money. And they were happy to let him build them a world-class golf course on the cutting edge of golden-age architecture. They even let Bartholomew stay on for a few years as their first club pro. But he’d never know the intricacies of the course: He still wasn’t allowed to play it.

This shame was not unique to Metairie. In 1934, when New Orleans’ City Park No. 1 layout opened—Bartholomew designed the greens and built the course—he couldn’t play there, either. Bartholomew built courses across Louisiana—in Baton Rouge, Hammond, Patterson, Brown’s Wells and Algiers—and possibly one in Mississippi. He couldn’t play any of them. With each project, his renown grew: “Bartholomew is perhaps one of the best known figures in golfing circles in this area,” the Times-Picayune wrote in 1956.

In most Bartholomew biographies, this is the point when they mention the private course. The New York Times obit says, “He eventually built a seven-hole course on property he owned in Harahan, La., a Mississippi River town west of New Orleans.” This makes sense, as he was not only a golf-course designer, but also a successful businessman, worth an estimated $500,000 by the late 1940s (roughly $5.4 million in today’s dollars). Fed up and unable to play his designs at segregated public golf courses or exclusive private clubs, Bartholomew made the only choice left available to him: He built a course for himself.

But here was the thing: Beyond these one-line mentions, I couldn’t find evidence of the course. Nothing about where it sat, when he built it, what happened to it, what it looked like or even how Bartholomew felt about it. I had to keep digging.

*

New Orleans isn’t getting any bigger. The city is surrounded on nearly all sides by water: Lake Pontchartrain to the north, Lake Borgne to the east, miles of swamp to the southeast and the Mississippi River to the south. For that reason, suburbs have been a critical part of the area’s growth, in Bartholomew’s day as today. And as New Orleans grew in the 1940s, geography made growth possible in only two directions: on the south side of the river, or to the west.

By the 1940s, Bartholomew owned a successful construction firm, which supported his design projects and took both public and private jobs. He purchased a money-losing life-insurance company and turned it into a profit maker. Then came real estate. Like a golfer who thinks one shot ahead, Bartholomew saw New Orleans’ westward growth before it happened and bought his way in front of it. He purchased hundreds of acres of undeveloped swampland, then used his construction expertise to drain it and level it for housing development before finally selling it at a healthy profit.

Among those holdings were 100 acres in tiny Harahan, a community of barely a thousand people in 1940, tucked down in a sharp, U-shaped bend in the Mississippi River, just west of New Orleans. Somewhere in those hundred acres, perhaps, Bartholomew forged his golfing refuge.

But without any concrete details, my mind was left to wander. I made Harahan his happy place: the freedom to build what he wanted, to invite whom he wanted and to play any goddamned time he wanted. It was his.

If it was even real.

*

Some of the accounts described it as a seven-hole layout; in other tellings, it had nine. Either way, modern aerial photos of Harahan show no trace of a golf course. Longtime New Orleans sports writers I contacted knew nothing about it. A Harahan city employee heard secondhand that Bartholomew’s land was divided into housing lots before the course was actually built. Maybe, as inevitably happens over the decades following someone’s death, the tellings of Bartholomew’s life had conflated the factual with the apocryphal. 

I searched for more than a year. Nothing—not even the well-researched books that have discussed Bartholomew’s life in recent years—shed any new light on his Harahan course. A March 1941 blurb in the Pittsburgh Courier—a prominent Black newspaper during its day—described a recent meeting of the Crescent City Negro Golf Club held at New Orleans’ Xavier University: “Joseph Bartholomew has made it possible for the club to play on the golf course near Harahan.” At first blush, it seemed to confirm everything, most of all that it actually existed. But the more I dwelled on those 17 words, the less they seemed to promise; the Courier didn’t say that the Crescent City Golf Club had been playing Bartholomew’s short course, or any course designed by Bartholomew. It said only that Bartholomew had “made it possible” to play “the golf course near Harahan.” Maybe it meant Colonial Country Club, an 18-hole course in Harahan dating back to the 1920s. (Colonial closed in 2012.) It wasn’t a Bartholomew design, but, by 1941, Bartholomew was an institution of the New Orleans golf scene. Maybe he’d pulled a string to get them on the course. Maybe, then as later, that was the only Harahan golf course.

Many nights, I pored over old black-and-white aerial photographs from the U.S. Geological Survey, zooming in and out, looking for anything that might be a golf course—trees lining a fairway, sand traps, anything. Every time I thought I’d found something, though, I compared it to old aerials of Bartholomew’s work at Metairie. In the photos, Metairie’s routing frequently clustered a small handful of greens close together, all of them flanked by two or three bunkers, with the darker greens plainly distinguishable from the lighter fairway grass. In other words, the course’s most obvious features—collections of greens and bunkers—were lumped together at Metairie. Even in the fuzzy black-and-white aerials, Metairie’s green complexes practically jumped off the page. There was nothing like that in the Harahan aerials.

The photos confirmed that, by 1964, Harahan had grown from just about a thousand residents before World War II to more than 9,000. The town’s undeveloped swampland had been converted into block after block of residential neighborhoods, leaving little room for Bartholomew’s golf course. Photos from 1952 showed far fewer housing units, but still no obvious seven- or nine-hole golf course. A couple of Harahan’s modern-day public parks were large enough that they might have been part of a small course, so I contacted Louisiana State University’s Cartographic Information Center, which owned aerial photos of Harahan from as early as 1942, not long after the Pittsburgh Courier blurb. But LSU’s search came up empty: Neither of the parks had been a golf course.

One afternoon, with my hopes dwindling, I heaved a heavy, musty, leather-bound collection of old Fortune magazines off the shelves of the Millsaps College library in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. The magazine had profiled Bartholomew’s business career in November 1949, and although I doubted it had much to say about golf-course architecture, I was out of other leads.

The browned and yellowed pages stuck together, peeling apart for the first time in years as I thumbed through. I was wrong: Fortune discussed Bartholomew’s upbringing in golf at length. He wasn’t the story’s only subject, but before moving on from Bartholomew’s tale, the magazine explained that his success in business had allowed him to be generous toward causes for which he cared. He had volunteered enormous volumes of work at local historically black universities, the magazine explained. Then, the hammer: “He has also built Negroes a private nine-hole golf course (he still shoots in the low seventies himself).”

It was real.

*

But just because the course was real didn’t mean more information was easily accessible. Bartholomew died in 1971. The last of his three children died in 2015. The trail seemed to go cold again.

Months later, I revisited the children’s obituaries the same way you scan your dresser for your lost keys for the fourth time, even after the three prior glances revealed nothing. This time, though, something clicked. I berated myself for missing the obvious next step: Bartholomew’s children were gone—but his grandchildren might not be. Maybe one of them had a sufficiently unique name, combined with a sufficiently high-profile life, to emerge in a Google search.

As it turned out, Gregg DeMar had both of those qualities.

DeMar—Bartholomew’s grandson, a Harvard graduate and a member of the board of trustees at a small North Carolina liberal-arts college—had recently retired from a career as an executive for IBM. The college connected us, and I explained my interest. He responded that he’d love to talk.

The morning we spoke, more than a year of pent-up excitement nearly burst out of my end of the phone. “Had Bartholomew’s Harahan course been real?” I asked.

“Yes,” DeMar said.

But he didn’t know where. DeMar was born in the mid-1950s and even grew up in Bartholomew’s house. But by the time DeMar was old enough to ask about such things, Bartholomew’s private course was already a thing of the past.

Bartholomew had been immensely proud of the Harahan course, DeMar explained. But he didn’t talk much about it. “He was more of a grandfather to me than a golfing icon,” he said.

DeMar did offer a clue into both why Bartholomew might not have spoken often of the course and where it might have been located. Bartholomew’s 100-acre holding in central Harahan had been part of a handshake business deal, and at some point the partnership went south. The land eventually was developed into a subdivision called Royland, named for Bartholomew’s business partner (perhaps an indication of who landed the better end of the deal). To this day, it remains a sensitive subject in Bartholomew’s family. And DeMar still remembers being a child when his grandfather drove him around Harahan one day, near Royland. Bartholomew motioned toward the subdivision, DeMar recalled, and said wistfully, “I used to have something over there.”

I’d stared many times at the 1952 aerial photographs of Harahan, studying the area that eventually became Royland. After DeMar’s story, I revisited them. Development of this land certainly was underway: On the north end of the holding, residential streets had been laid out; on the south end, more than a hundred tiny post-war houses had sprung up.

Between those north and south ends, though, the 1952 aerial showed a large swath of open land—roughly half the size of Colonial Country Club’s 18-hole course in south Harahan. The swath contained no obvious sand traps or green sites, nor the multitude of tree-lined playing corridors that adorned Colonial, so I’d never suspected it as Bartholomew’s course. But after speaking to DeMar, a couple of details that previously hadn’t jumped out suddenly seemed obvious. 

First, the tree line on the north edge of the property was straight and clean; someone must have cut it purposefully, and probably with large equipment. If this was indeed the site of Bartholomew’s course, then he would have had both purpose and large equipment.

Second, the site was covered with grass—a fact that didn’t occur to me originally, because the aerial photo is black and white. But the area’s shade of gray was unmistakably uniform—not quite as dark as the more lush, verdant Colonial to the south, but also clearly not an open dirt site ready for concrete slabs. By 1964, the shades of gray were less uniform; patches of darker grey were splotching up—grass growing taller and denser in some areas, a sign maintenance had stopped. Less than a decade later, in 1972, aerial photos show dozens of trees sprouting up irregularly throughout the property, clearly evincing a years-long absence of serious maintenance.

The 1952 aerials show something different, though: uniform grass, no trees and a level of maintenance not seen in later years. There was something going on there, and it wasn’t construction.

Initially, the near-total absence of trees also left me skeptical that this might have been Bartholomew’s course. But after seeing enough photos of other Bartholomew courses, I realized that this wouldn’t have been out of character for him. Bartholomew’s design at City Park left some specimen trees, but did not line the fairways, and, to this day, several holes at Metairie abut one another with almost no trees separating them. Although trees crowded the fairways of Bartholomew’s design at Pontchartrain Park Golf Course in later years (before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the course and thinned its trees in 2005), the course mostly played wide open in its early days. With no client, and no one to please but himself, Bartholomew might well have favored having almost no trees at all, further supporting the theory that the Royland site was Bartholomew’s private course.

Then Pontchartrain Park changed everything. By 1956, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision was two years old; federal courts were, finally, sweeping away Jim Crow. In a last-ditch effort to preserve their segregated public parks, many Southern cities scrambled to build facilities for Blacks only. Pontchartrain Park was New Orleans’ effort at that. It was a cynical ploy, but, politics aside, all Bartholomew had ever wanted was a place to play golf, and Pontchartrain Park provided it. From his perspective, then, it could be argued that the Harahan course was no longer necessary. Perhaps by 1956 his Harahan business partner had already taken the course from Bartholomew. But, by then, maybe Bartholomew was ready to let go of it emotionally, too.

*

No one rises to Joseph Bartholomew’s heights without a collection of remarkable gifts. One of his was pragmatism. As gifted an artist as he was, it was Bartholomew’s genius as an engineer that generated such demand for his design work. He saw opportunities for making things work that few others could envision.

That pragmatism apparently extended even to the system of segregation under which he lived nearly his entire life. Bartholomew was no fool: He and his peers knew that city officials were allowing Pontchartrain Park only because it might forestall full integration. For that reason, the NAACP opposed the project altogether. But, according to DeMar, Bartholomew saw it as progress. It was better than nothing.

“When I was growing up, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, I lived under segregation,” DeMar told me. “He did too, but he lived it more than I did; he lived it all his life. We all—and he did too—always felt a sense of, ‘Well, why? And why not?’ But we had no control over it. The best you could do was to say you disagreed with it, but you had to be a little careful about that.”

Bartholomew was a meticulous planner. Nearly 100 years before digital flyovers, Bartholomew showed Metairie’s members plastic models of the fairways he planned to build there, and he used putty to mold the greens he designed at City Park. His attention to detail did not go unnoticed: On the eve of City Park No. 1’s opening, in 1934, the Times-Picayune noted that Bartholomew “was employed for his practical knowledge of golf course building.”

His design philosophy was no less pragmatic. Bartholomew knew a winning formula when he saw one, so in his own designs he frequently revisited Raynor’s penchant for template holes. At City Park, Bartholomew designed a Redan green, a long par 4 to a half-Redan, half-punchbowl green, and a traditional punchbowl green from a blind approach. 

More than 20 years later, Bartholomew designed Pontchartrain Park—posthumously, in 1979, renamed Joseph M. Bartholomew Golf Course—from the same philosophy: testing every shot at a player’s disposal, all within the playability that classic template holes provide.

“On different holes, he would toughen the play either on the green, off the tee, on the second shot or in the approach. He knew how to design a golfer’s golf course,” says architect Garrett Gill, who worked with New Orleans native and PGA Tour veteran Kelly Gibson to renovate Joseph M. Bartholomew Golf Course after Hurricane Katrina. “You could see a Raynor influence in some of the featuring, but I think all the credit needs to go to Mr. Bartholomew.”

On a course of Bartholomew’s own, it’s not hard to imagine that Raynor’s influence would have featured prominently. It would have been unusual for Bartholomew not to include sand traps—deep bunkering was a Raynor hallmark, and greens pinched tightly by pairs of bunkers were common in Bartholomew’s designs at Metairie and Pontchartrain Park—but the 1952 aerials show no bunkering at the Royland site. Then again, maintaining bunkers is expensive, and perhaps Bartholomew elected to forgo them as a cost-saving measure. Or perhaps by 1952 Bartholomew’s Harahan course already was a thing of the past. Or maybe it wasn’t at Royland at all. 

The theory is not a certainty. But no other possibility that I’ve found seems so plausible.

*

A nursing home, a handful of residential streets and too many ranch-style homes to count now crowd my best guess for the site of Bartholomew’s refuge. A photograph of this place could be the cover art for Pleasant Valley Sunday—a cool, cloudless blue sky perched above smooth, clean streets lined by front yards full of magnolia trees, live oaks and New Orleans Saints flags. If this is the place where Bartholomew’s private fairways rolled, then their rumples were flattened long ago by bulldozers and concrete slabs. Whatever hints this place might once have whispered about Bartholomew’s life have drifted away in the heavy south Louisiana air.

Bartholomew grew up in an era with few records of his accomplishments, and he died before their gravity had garnered the full appreciation that they deserve. Despite some late efforts, history will never fully record the details of his remarkable life and, perhaps just as importantly, how he felt about them.

If Bartholomew’s Harahan course no longer allows a window into his mind, then his acceptance of its loss and welcoming of Pontchartrain Park does. He knew, as all Black golfers of his generation in New Orleans knew, that the city afforded them Pontchartrain Park only to breathe another moment’s life into the segregation of all-white municipal courses. But Bartholomew also understood that Pontchartrain Park offered Black golfers something that New Orleans had never given them: a golf course of their own. It wasn’t ideal. But it was something. It didn’t put the injustice of the past behind them completely, but it was a chance to take an imperfect step forward.

For Bartholomew, it appears, that was enough.

History does record one last chapter of Bartholomew’s design career: that Pontchartrain Park did not merely replace a design that was nearer to Bartholomew’s heart, but that it became a place that he loved. Today, a life-size statue of Bartholomew stands behind the clubhouse, looking out over the course that now bears his name.

“I think the sense is that it was a personal point of pride—that even after he built that first course for Metairie Country Club, that he could then do something on his own that would allow his compatriots and himself to play,” DeMar says. “Eventually, when he built the golf course in Pontchartrain Park, that was an even more immense point of pride for him.”

DeMar remembers mornings when Bartholomew would take him to the clubhouse at Pontchartrain Park, where Bartholomew, in the last decade of his life, would sit and hold court. Players asked Bartholomew how to fix their swing, or how he designed a course, or whether they should tinker with their equipment. Bartholomew’s nickname in those days was Fess, short for “Professor.” DeMar was only a child at the time, so his memories are fuzzy around the edges. But, above all else, he remembers that Bartholomew—sitting there, with his design at Pontchartrain Park in front of him, and the only evidence of the Harahan course in his mind—was happy.

And if Bartholomew, after all he endured, could move on from the Harahan course, then I could too.