The balcony of Sherman White’s home overlooks the golf course of Oakland’s Sequoyah Country Club.
But the black former defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills has been trying to become a member of the club for three years--with no success.
“I tried again just a few days ago, but no one would sponsor me,” White said in an interview. “These are people who’ve rooted for me, who played football with me at UC Berkeley. I’ve had cocktails with them. But they wouldn’t get behind me and let me in.”
The Sequoyah and Oakland’s Claremont Country Club have been frequent targets of criticism lately. Several prominent blacks in Oakland, including baseball star Joe Morgan, have accused the clubs of discriminating against blacks in their admission policies, and now the state attorney general’s office is investigating the clubs for evidence of discrimination that could lead to the clubs’ losing their tax-exempt status.
Critics have pointed out that whatever the change that has swept through Oakland in recent years--the population is now 47% black, the mayor is black, the publisher of the Oakland Tribune is black--neither of these old-line, venerable clubs has a single black member.
The complaints of discrimination gained added weight in August, when Oakland Mayor Lionel J. Wilson and Alameda County Supervisor John George sent letters to the clubs, asking for copies of bylaws and expressing a “strong concern” about possible discrimination.
Wilson said their letters were never answered, and in an interview, he added that while charges against the clubs are hard to pin down, “for some time, from my observation and from talking to people who belong to the clubs, I’ve had reason to believe that whether written or unwritten, methods are used to keep blacks out of the clubs.”
He charged that a policy requiring a new member to obtain five club sponsors at the Sequoyah Country Club makes it impossible for prospective blacks to enter. At the Claremont Country Club, prospective members must obtain a sponsor, a co-sponsor, and 10 letters of recommendation from current members before a membership application is reviewed by a special board.
“It’s impossible for blacks to get sponsors, because there are no minorities there in the first place,” Wilson said.
Others have complained that they met with hostility while seeking applications to the clubs. “When you visit there, and you see people turn away from you because you’re black, it’s like looking in the face of Pretoria,” said Gordon Henderson, owner of an insurance agency in Oakland and an occasional guest at both clubs.
Spokesmen for the clubs contend that they have no policies discriminating against blacks. At the 75-year-old Sequoyah Country Club, manager John Bearden declined to comment on discrimination charges, but an admissions clerk said, “I’ve been here for three years, and if no blacks were admitted during that time, it’s because no blacks have applied.”
Claremont Country Club President Rupert Ricksen met with Mayor Wilson last week to discuss discrimination charges, and both sides said they were “pleased” with the meeting.
The issue is heating up, meanwhile, on other fronts. Representatives of the Oakland YMCA said the organization will decide soon whether to cancel an Oct. 7 golf benefit at the Sequoyah Country Club, due to the allegations of discrimination.
Wilson also asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the tax-exempt status of the clubs.
Under state and federal law, so-called “pleasure clubs” enjoy a tax-exempt status if organized as nonprofit “mutual benefit” organizations, according to Marian Johnston, head of the civil rights unit of the state attorney general’s office. A club’s tax-exempt status may be jeopardized if discrimination has occurred because “under state law, one cannot employ state action to deprive someone of their civil rights,” Johnston said.
Johnston expects to ask the clubs for admission statistics and other documents as part of her inquiry into any discriminatory practices, she said.
For now, Wilson says his official actions in the matter will be limited until he hears more from the clubs. If no action from the clubs is forthcoming, Wilson said, he will bring the matter before the Oakland City Council.
“We are hoping to correct this as soon as possible,” he said.