Clio Logo
Swope Park Driving Tour
Item 15 of 15

Sprawling over the easternmost section of Swope Park, the Swope Memorial Golf Course is one of the most prominent fixtures of Swope Park since its construction in 1934. Designed by renowned golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast, the course boasts eighteen holes, complete with hazards and other trappings, nestled among the trees of Swope Park to the east of the Kansas City Zoo. The course is considered to be one of the best in the Kansas City area, having hosted the 1949 PGA Kansas City Open and numerous smaller events over the decades. However, Swope Memorial Golf Course has a far more important story to tell. In March of 1950, four Black men played a round of golf here, during a time when Swope Park was heavily segregated. Through this spark of non-violent resistance to injustice, Reuben Benton, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester "Pat" Johnson were the driving force behind the eventual desegregation of golf facilities in Kansas City. Despite this victory, however, Swope Memorial eventually fell victim to slow decay brought on by the migration of urban dwellers draining out to the suburbs, though repair efforts in the early 2000s have restored both this course and the nearby Heart of America Golf Course to their former glory. Today, this course continues to serve the golfing community of the Kansas City area, while simultaneously paying a silent tribute to the four men who took a metaphorical (and literal) swing at the inequality of the 1950s.

A picture of the clubhouse at Swope Memorial Golf Course. Taken by Frank Lauder, Date Unknown.

Plant, Building, Sky, Property

Map of Swope Park, dated April 1911. The golf course is visible on the right (east) side of the park, next to the red number 17.

Map, Parallel, Pattern, Art

Swope Park was first established in 1896, when real estate tycoon Thomas H. Swope donated 1,334 acres of land to the city for the formation of a park. Unfortunately, Swope passed away under mysterious circumstances in 1909, meaning that he would never see the complete fruition of (or the social upheaval caused by) his land gift. In 1934, the Swope Memorial Golf Course was opened in the eastern section of the park. Consisting of eighteen holes with a par of 72, the course was designed by renowned golf aficionado and course designer A.W. Tillinghast. Swope Memorial is the only such course in Missouri, and one of three Tillinghast designs in the Kansas City area. At some point, an additional nine-hole course was added to the south of the original eighteen holes. This course would become known as Swope No. 2, with the original course being Swope No. 1.

According to a write-up published by Mark Wagner and re-printed by the African-American History Trail of Kansas City, golf is perhaps one of the lesser-known arenas where segregation reared its head in Kansas City during the twentieth century. Initially, all golfing infrastructure at Swope Park was designated as white-only. In the 1920s, the first Black golf course in the Metro was established by a farmer named Junius Grove, also known as "The Potato King", who set aside a portion of his farm in Edwardsville to construct a golf course for Black players. The Heart of America Golf Club was formed at this location. After several years passed, the rules were eventually changed to allow Black golfers to play the nine-hole course at Swope No. 2, though only on Mondays. This arrangement continued until the 1950s. However, discontent had be growing among Black golfers, who felt that they were stunted by their confinement to the smaller and somewhat easier Swope No. 2. Citing the Kansas City Call, Wagner states that "Kansas City golfers were taking a "stinging beating" in regional tournaments. They were known as the "Scrawny-Driving" boys."

On Friday the 24th of March in 1950, Reuben Benton, George Johnson, Leroy Doty and Sylvester "Pat" Johnson entered the clubhouse at Swope No. 1 and paid the green fees to play the course. Wagner does not specify if the men faced any resistance at the time, though he does mention one bystander who said that the police were called. Regardless, the wave of golf-borne protest that was sparked by these four men continued throughout the next decade or so. Though the men started in groups of four as is standard for golf, changes had to be made when protesters began returning from their games to find their tires has been slashed. According to Wagner, "the men of the Heart of America always had an answer, though. After a couple of weeks, foursomes became groups of five. At the beginning of a round, they would roll dice. The man with the lowest roll would watch the cars for the first nine holes, and then the highest scorer of the playing four would replace him." Eventually, the golf facilities at Swope Park would be desegregated along with the rest of the nation, though this was not the end of the woes of golf in Swope Park.

As time went on, many of the patrons of Swope Memorial Golf Course (and the money they spent there) drained out of the surrounding area as the suburbs continued to expand. As a result, Swope Memorial Golf Course fell into disrepair until it was revived in the late 90's and early 2000s. Additionally, Swope Course No. 2 was renamed to Heart of America Golf Course, hosting the Tom Watson Golf Academy. In 2005, Swope Park hosted the 2005 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. To this day, Swope Memorial Golf Course remains one of the premier golf facilities in the Kansas City area, and the four men who blazed the trail towards its desegregation are immortalized in a picture hanging in the clubhouse.

Swope Memorial | About Our Course. Accessed December 16, 2022. 

“Swope Memorial Golf Course - KC Parks and Rec.” Kansas City Parks. Accessed December 16, 2022. 

“Swope Park Golf Course.” African American Heritage Trail of Kansas City. Accessed December 16, 2022. 

Wagner, Mark. “In the Heart of the Heart of America.” The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Telegram & Gazette, July 6, 2019. 

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri