Canton Repository

May 29, 2004

Angry Clearview golf legend looks back at WWII, to today, future

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Even with all his success, William J. Powell is still an angry man. Powell, the first black to design, build, own and operate his own golf course, came to the Capitol to participate in the dedication today of the World War II Memorial.

He recalled how when he served in England during World War II, he was welcomed with “open arms” at British golf clubs. Then when he returned to Ohio after the war, he couldn’t play at American golf courses because he was black.

Rejection spurred him to borrow money and establish the Clearview Golf Club in Osnaburg Township, which advertises itself as open to everyone.

Powell’s life story became the subject of a book, “Clearview: America’s Course,” authored by Ellen Susanna Nosner in 2000.

The racial divide still troubles him, and earlier this week, as he waited to meet the Tuskegee Airmen, black fighter pilots from World War II, he was pessimistic about the future.

“If I would tell the truth, I would say it’ll never be any better in this country,” he said.

Yet Powell, 87, remains positive about a nation that he considers his as much as anyone else’s.

On Friday, he and veteran actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis discussed their experiences in the segregated Army during an event sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Powell was wearing the medal around his neck that he received when inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame six years ago.

One member of the audience wondered why Powell and Davis chose to return to the United States after experiencing less discrimination abroad.

“This is my country,” Powell replied. “This is the country I fought for. Why would I want to leave? In spite of all the bad things about it, I feel it’s the best country in the world.”

The audience burst into applause.

Powell was unfailingly gracious, especially with the Smithsonian employees who ferried him around in a golf cart on the busy National Mall.

“These young people are just beautiful,” he said. He also admires the Smithsonian, which he said is “all about truth. No politician, nothing. So that’s what I like about it.”

The armed forces were still segregated when Powell and Davis served.

Powell, assigned to a trucking unit in England, hauled bombs to airbases and helped transport the troops who launched the D-Day invasion.

Davis became a medic and was sent to Liberia to establish a hospital for wounded soldiers from the North African campaign.

“We had to establish segregated quarters for the men and officers,” Davis recalled during an interview with National Public Radio’s Linda Wertheimer. “And there we were, fighting against Hitler and racism, but following racist practices ourselves. It was not an easy situation.”

Powell had his own brushes with racial malice.

As he and other black troops traveled around England, they could tell by the reaction of townspeople whether white soldiers had preceded them.

If white Americans had been there, the civilians “would ask you if you had a tail,” Powell said. “If white soldiers had not gotten there, you were treated differently.”

Powell insists the war did not change him, or contribute to his later achievements.

Instead, he credits the way his parents raised him in Minerva, an all-white community at the time.

“Honesty, honesty, that’s what I was taught. Honesty always. If you’re honest with yourself and other people you’ll have no problem in the world,” he said.

Powell’s parents taught him that when he had a job to do, do it right the first time.

He began caddying at the age of 9. “When the owner asked us to do anything, he didn’t need to ask a second time,” Powell said.

Whatever Powell had, it catapulted him to captain of his high school football and golf teams.

“I was the only minority on the team,” he said. Yet because of segregation in the armed forces, “I couldn’t go to war with those kids. Think about it.”

Powell is still active at his golf course, where his daughter Renee, a professional golfer, serves as the club pro.

He said his hopes for a better future and a sense of responsibility keep him going.

“I feel that we’re all brought on this earth to do something,” he said. “When you see a bunch of ants crawling around on the ground, I compare myself to one of those little ants. You see that those little ants stay busy, they’re workers, and they all contribute to something.

“I had a stroke about 14 years ago,” he said. “The family wouldn’t let me do anything and I got as weak as water. And I said it’d never happen again. I have to be out and doing something all the time.

“Right now my left hip is killing me,” he said, again waiting to see the Tuskegee Airmen. “Grin and bear it.

“But sometimes it’s pretty tough.”