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‘He’s our Jackie Robinson of golf’: This Michigan golf legend posthumously gets his day in the limelight

Detroit and Oakland County leaders gathered to unveil a $5,000 outdoor bronze plaque, placed at the entrance to a golf course, which names a Michigander who broke the state’s color barrier in golf.

In 1966, Ben Davis became the first African American member of Michigan’s Professional Golfers’ Association, a membership long barred to Black people but mandatory for entering tournaments. Two years later, Davis was appointed head pro at Rackham Golf Course, a public course in Huntington Woods operated by the city of Detroit, making Davis the nation’s first African American to hold that position at a municipal golf course.

“He’s our Jackie Robinson of golf, frankly,” Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter told the audience at the unveiling.

Moments later, Coulter along with Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist stood by as Huntington Woods Planning, Zoning and Preservation Administrator Hank Berry tugged canvas from the plaque near the entrance to Rackham Golf Course. That revealed wording that honored Davis as well as the course itself. It was a century ago, in 1923, that philanthropist Horace Rackham gave land for the course, after Rackham bought 150 acres at the northwest corner of Woodward Avenue and what was then 10 Mile Road, now the I-696 freeway.

Rackham, phenomenally wealthy from his early investment in the Ford Motor Co., gave the land to the city of Detroit with the request that some should be added to the Detroit Zoo while most of it should become a public golf course. But not just any public course, such as those opening around the country in the 1920s that only welcomed whites. As the new plaque reads, in bronze letters that no book burner can incinerate: Rackham “was for many years one of the few integrated golf courses in the nation.” The plaque continues: “In 1936 the course hired Erellon Ben Davis (1912-2013) to instruct African American patrons. Among his students were Motown artists and Joe Louis. . .”

Those who play Rackham and glimpse it, front and back, will see that one side honors Davis while the other is about the golf course itself. The entire facility is a state historic site, including its Arts and Crafts-style clubhouse.

One person at the unveiling with a strong personal tie was Shaun Thomas, 64, of Detroit, a great-nephew of Ben Davis. Thomas proudly stepped forward to receive a proclamation signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, handed to him by Gilchrist, who said his own father learned to swing a club at Rackham. Thomas, as a teen in the 1970s, had a summer job at the nearby Detroit Zoo, he said. By then, Davis was in his 60s but still teaching golf at Rackham, “so we rode together each morning,” Thomas said. He remembered his great uncle as an upbeat role model, someone who “never expressed anything about the tensions and the struggle he went through.”

The crowd is all smiles on July 28, 2023, after a historic marker is unveiled in Huntington Woods honoring pioneer Black pro golfer Ben Davis. Standing under the marker’s word “Golf” is Davis’ great nephew Shaun Thomas, flanked to the right by his wife Donna Thomas, and to the left by U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens. At top beside the marker is Oakland County Commissioner Charlie Cavell.

Another at the event who remembered Davis first-hand was Karen Peek, director of golf operations for Golf Detroit, which operates Rackham through a management contract held by Pinehurst, North Carolina-based Signet Golf with the Detroit Recreation Department. Peek was the first Black member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Michigan chapter, according to her online resume. She told the crowd that she recalled watching, as a child, her mother and aunt take golf lessons from Davis. Although her mom and auntie were “two of the least athletic people you could meet,” the golf pro was so patient and friendly that “they couldn’t wait to have their next golf lesson,” Peek recalled with a broad smile. Davis’ attitude was “infinitely positive,” she added.

The meticulously worded history of Ben Davis and Rackham Golf Course as described on the new plaque, according to Huntington Woods city officials,  required painstaking documentation by volunteer history buffs as well as city staff. That was followed by a lengthy application submitted to the Michigan History Center and a long wait for a decision, said Louise Wibbelman of Huntington Woods, vice chair of the city’s Historic District Study Committee.

Although Davis died a decade ago, at age 101, it took much of the time since then to gain state approval for what’s officially called a Michigan Historic Marker, then decide on a site and raise about $5,000 to have the marker engraved and installed, Wibbelman said.

This year, “the stars finally aligned,” she said.



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