Civil Rights Tour: Recreation - Langston Golf Course

2600 Benning Road NE

“They are tax payers, they are citizens, and they have a right to play golf on public courses on the same basis as whites. To be sure, we have maintained a golf course for Negroes in Washington, but the cold fact is that we have not kept it up and it is not surprising that Negroes do not care to play on it…” (Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, 1941)

In the decades before World War II, African Americans were denied access to most municipal golf courses and private clubs in the United States. Fewer than twenty out of more than 5,000 courses nationwide were open to blacks, and most of these were black-owned private clubs. As a public facility opened by the National Park Service in 1939, Langston Golf Course in the District was an exception and became the "mecca" of black golf on the East Coast.  

Before Langston Golf Course opened, only the nine-hole course near the Lincoln Memorial was open to African Americans. During the 1920s, as the number of black golfers increased, their frustrations with this inadequate course and the lack of other options mounted, especially as they had to travel great distances to courses that would allow them to play. For years, black golfers had lobbied the federal government to desegregate the city’s courses, and, in 1927, they established the nation’s first club, the Capital City Golf Club, largely with that goal in mind. That year, the club requested that a facility for black golfers be included in the emerging plans for recreational development along the Anacostia River.

In 1934, the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds informed the club (re-named the Royal Golf Club in 1933) that plans for an 18-hole course in Anacostia Park (which would include an up-to-date clubhouse) were underway. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration, the new course was named for John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), a Virginia congressman and the first dean of Howard University Law School. Langston opened to great fanfare on June 11, 1939, though with only nine holes completed. With this and other shortcomings, it was not suitable for tournaments.

The Wake Robin Golf Club, which became the first African American women’s golfing association in the nation upon its establishment in 1937, joined with the Royal Golf Club to push for improvements at Langston and to continue the fight for desegregating all public golf courses.

In 1941, they turned to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who, in keeping with his landmark decision to let Marian Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial, ordered the desegregation of courses operated by the National Park Service. The order, however, did nothing to control white hostility, and for years black golfers faced verbal and physical harassment when they played on Washington’s public courses. Local white support for segregation also led to clashes with the National Park Service over other recreational facilities such as Anacostia Pool.

In 1955, Langston was improved and the course expanded to 18 holes, finally becoming the standard facility that golfers had sought for decades. Washington’s black golfing community continued to grow, and, along with it, a deep loyalty to Langston and its history. In 1991, Langston Golf Course was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.