Bill Powell dies at 93; pioneering black golfer ran Ohio course

Bill Powell designed, built and ran Clearview Golf Club in Ohio — dubbed "America’s Course." His daughter, Renee Powell was also a professional golfer.
Bill Powell designed, built and ran Clearview Golf Club in Ohio — dubbed “America’s Course.” His daughter, Renee Powell was also a professional golfer.
(Bob Rossiter / Associated Press)
Associated Press

Bill Powell, the first African American to build, own and operate a golf course, died Thursday at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, following complications from a stroke. He was 93.

“Bill Powell will forever be one of golf’s most unforgettable American heroes,” PGA of America President Jim Remy said. “Bill made us appreciate the game and each other that much more by his gentle yet firm example.

“He was born with a fire within his heart to build on his dream. In the process, he made golf a beacon for people of all colors. The PGA of America is better today because of individuals like Bill Powell.”

In August, Powell received the PGA Distinguished Service Award, the association’s highest annual honor.

“My father made a mark,” said Renee Powell, the second black player to compete on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Assn. tour. “And, I believe that God wanted people to know the mark that he made on this nation.”

The grandson of Alabama slaves, Powell created Clearview Golf Club after returning home from World War II. While serving in Europe, he earned the rank of Technical Sergeant in the U.S. 8th Air Force Truck Battalion.

Powell worked 18-hour days to support his family and build Clearview. Denied a GI loan, he found funding from two black physicians, and his brother took out a second mortgage on his home.

He carved Clearview out of former dairy farmland in 1946, clearing the land himself. In the process, Powell broke down racial barriers without fanfare by developing golf leagues for women and youths.

Clearview opened its initial nine holes in 1948. Powell eventually repaid his benefactors to gain full ownership, and nine more holes were completed in 1978. Clearview is on the National Register of Historic Places, and nicknamed “America’s Course.”

“I didn’t build this course for any of the recognition,” Powell said in his 2000 autobiography, “Clearview: America’s Course.” “It was a labor of love. Golf is a part of society and I wanted to be included. I want you to be included, too. I’ve always felt that each individual should leave something behind of meaning. It feels good to know that I have done that with Clearview, at long last.”

Powell was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 1996 and became a PGA Life Member in 1999.

William James Powell was born Nov. 22, 1916, in Greenville, Ala., and in 1919 moved with his family to Minerva, Ohio, where his father worked in a pottery factory. At age 9 he learned to play golf and began caddying at Edgewater golf course in Minerva.

A multisport athlete in high school, Powell attended Wilberforce University before beginning his military service. When he returned to Canton after the war he worked for the Timken Co., a roller bearing and steel manufacturer.

Powell was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Marcella, and son William. In addition to daughter Renee, who competed from 1967 to 1980 on the LPGA tour, he’s survived by son Larry, who has served for more than 30 years as superintendent at Clearview Golf Club, and twin sisters Mary Alice Walker and Rose Marie Mathews.

“I wouldn’t do it again,” Powell said in a 1996 interview with the Associated Press, reflecting on his effort to build the golf course. “It took a toll on my family, that’s all. It isn’t worth it. I could have done anything to take care of my family. I chose this, and I stuck with it, that was all. I’m not a quitter.”