Among the panelists at the Institute for Racial Justice’s annual Martha’s Vineyard Forum on August 15 at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center will be children’s author and Oak Bluffs summer resident Richard Michelson.
Sports is the topic of this year’s forum, and Mr. Michelson makes a natural fit. His most recent book, “Twice as Good,” tells the story of William Powell, an African-American boy from Ohio who fell in love with golf when he was still in elementary school.
The catch for Willie Powell was that in the pre-WWII era when he was growing up — long before the ascent of Tiger Woods — golf courses didn’t allow people of color on the links. The odds were stacked against little Willie.
Willie didn’t let the color barrier stop him from learning and excelling at this genteel sport, and Mr. Michelson tells in straightforward prose the way Willie took to heart the message that he needed to be twice as good as whites to fulfill his ambitions.
Willie started slowly, working as a caddy at Edgewater, the all-white golf club that wouldn’t allow him to play golf. His mother’s boss took him there to play anyway, and a teenaged Willie came in third in a tournament at another all-white golf club.
As if his golfing prowess weren’t enough of an accomplishment, Willie formed a new goal: to create a golf course where “the only color that matters…is the color of the greens.” By then he was married, with a daughter named Renee, who ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps and became the first African-American female Class A member of the PGA, as well as playing professionally in the LPGA. In 1996, she founded the Renee Powell Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame Golf Tournament.
In telling the story of William Powell and Clearview, the nation’s first and only golf course designed, built, and owned by an African American, Mr. Michelson has deftly highlighted a different kind of hero to replace movie stars, rock idols, and even big-ticket sports figures. The obstacles to William Powell’s success were many, but the author does not dwell on them, emphasizing instead the optimism and can-do spirit that enabled this determined man to realize his dreams.
Mr. Michelson learned about William Powell from his literary agent, who sent him a newspaper article about the golfer. At first he thought his agent had gone crazy, since Mr. Michelson had never played a round of golf in his life. And as a Jewish kid who grew up poor in Brooklyn, he thought of golf as strictly for rich, white Christians. But Willie Powell’s story captured his imagination, so he called up Mr. Powell’s daughter.
“Renee was a great resource,” Mr. Michelson says. “I was able to read old letters and newspaper articles, as well as reminiscences that William Powell collected, and a wonderful book on Clearview and Powell by Ellen Nosner.”
Mr. Powell’s golf course has become a National Historic site. “Twice as Good” just received the Gillett Burgess Award for a children’s book that presents a hero. And to top it off, Mr. Michelson garnered a jacket blurb for “Twice as Good” from President Barack Obama.
Another of Mr. Michelson’s award-winning books, “Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King,” spotlights a Jewish sports hero. The author, who has just been appointed Poet Laureate of Northampton, will discuss both stories as examples for how minorities can and do enter the mainstream.
Between the Lines: Race and Gender in Sports in the 21st Century, 10 am, Wednesday, Aug. 15, M.V. Performing Arts Center at M.V. Regional High School, Oak Bluffs. charleshamiltonhouston.org.