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Meet Ben Davis, the Detroit man who broke the color barrier for head golf pros

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Posted at 10:40 AM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 13:02:44-05

Erellon Ben Davis is an important name in Michigan golf, but one many people may not know.

Davis, who died at the age of 101 in 2013, was the first African American head golf professional in the United States.

Born in Florida in 1912, Davis moved to Detroit in 1925 with his family and began his professional golf career at the Pine Crest Driving Range in Ferndale in 1936, according to his obituary.

He then began teaching at Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods in 1952, and would eventually become the Class A Head Professional.

Shaun Thomas, his great-nephew, said they used to ride to work together during the summers when he was a teenager working at the Detroit Zoo, right next to Rackham.

"I'd see him setting out under the tree, or, as I was on the railroad, he'd see me on the train and I'd see him out there giving golf lessons," Thomas said.

For more than 50 years, Davis taught golf at Rackham, and he also was the head pro at the now-closed Palmer Park Golf Course right near the Detroit Golf Club.

It was in 1966 that he became the first African American head golf professional in the country. It took him three decades to break the color barrier in golf.

"He did the best he could with his talent and the limits that were on his abilities at the time," Thomas said. "I don't know how far he could've gone if there weren't limitations as far as if he could or couldn't golf at that club. He never talked about it, but you know there were places he couldn't go."

One of his students was Karen Peek, who is now the Director of Golf Operations for Golf Detroit, which runs Rackham Golf Course, Chandler Park Golf Course and Rouge Park Golf Course.

She first met Davis in 969 when her mother and aunt were taking lessons from him. That's when she decided to take up golf. Peek went on to get lessons from Davis, played in tournaments and decided she wanted to be a golf pro.

"Once again, Ben Davis was right there. He was an amazing mentor for me," she said. "He taught me something that is really essential to being a great teacher. That it's about building a rapport with your students, getting them to understand that you cared about them as people."

According to Thomas, he never really talked about breaking the color barrier in golf. Thomas didn't know Davis did it until later in his life, when he began getting honors.

Peek said she believes she and many other people had opportunities they never would have had if it weren't for Davis.

"He was a pioneer. With that, I really believe there comes a certain amount of responsibility, which he embraced. He was an exceptional example for me, and for a number of other Black professionals who were apprentices under him. They would have never had an opportunity at any club to learn their craft. Ben created the opportunity.

"Things were relatively easy for me, in terms of, I didn't have to go through any Jim Crow stuff," she added. "I earned my credentials, I learned from some really great teachers starting with Ben. So many people would not have had that chance if it were not for Ben."

While at Rackham, Davis taught many students including legendary boxer Joe Louis and Detroit Pistons hall of famer Bob Lanier, according to his obituary.

He has many accomplishments in both Michigan and national golf, winning the Michigan Senior PGA Championship in 1974 and the U.S. National Senior Tournament in 1979.

His name still lives on to this day with the Ben Davis Open Championship held every year at Rackham for golfers. It draws some of the best players in the area. The street leading into Rackham Golf Course is also named in his honor, and the City of Huntington Woods proclaimed his birthday, Feb. 19, as Ben Davis Day.

"Rackham is a shrine to him. I can tell you that even today, people that were around years ago will come up to me and say things about Ben like, 'I wish Ben was here,' or, 'I had this terrible slice and he could always fix it so quickly,'" she said. "In so many ways, there will never be another Ben Davis."

"He loved the game," Thomas said. "He was in his 90s and still teaching golf."

Peek also said that she played with him in his 90s, and he could still hit it.

"He was just so smooth and fluid, and there was a wonderment about the game that he enjoyed," she said.

Davis was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame in 1992 and the African American Golfers Hall of Fame in 2012.

Peek also said that she would hear his name while she played mini-tours around the country, but because of the color of his skin, he was likely not as well known as he should have been.

"I think his notoriety would've just grown exponentially if he had had the exposure and opportunity when he was a younger man, or if he was transported into the current environment," Peek said. "I think his notoriety would've only grown."