Long before RFK Stadium hosted three Super Bowl-winning Washington Redskins teams and the first three seasons of the Washington Nationals, another historic athletic facility was breaking barriers on the banks of the Anacostia River on the eastern side of the District of Columbia.
Langston Golf Course was established in 1939 and named after John Mercer Langston, the first black congressman from Virginia. It has since served black golfers during segregation, housed the oldest black women’s golf club in the nation and played host to esteemed politicians, celebrities and professional athletes.
Langston has a somewhat tumultuous history. The National Park Service awards concessions to manage the course, and the fate of the course is often intertwined with the ebbs and flows of the federal government.
Most notably, Lee Elder received the concession to manage the course in 1978. Elder, the first black man to play in the Masters and the winner of the 2019 Bob Jones Award, was an instructor at Langston from 1960-62 and had sought the concession for nearly a decade.
Elder invested heavily in improving the course and made it a go-to stop in the nation’s capital.
“Every entertainer that came to the D.C. area came to Langston Golf Course because it had so much significance,” said Elder. “They had all heard about it and the people that had played there.”
Legendary heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and entertainment icon Bob Hope were among Elder’s favorite golf partners at Langston. The course also hosted the United Golfers Association – a group of black professional golfers who operated tournaments – with events that featured the likes of Louis (who became an avid golfer), Ted Rhodes, Charlie Sifford and others.
The National Park Service closed the course in a contract dispute with Elder in 1981, reopening it under new management in 1983. Despite the disappointing ending, Elder still fondly remembers his time in D.C.
“Those were great times, and I will always cherish them, because I feel like Washington is my home,” he said. “I was there for 28 years. It was my home and it will always be deeply rooted in my heart.”
While the management situation has often been in flux, one organization has been a constant presence at Langston and was in fact the impetus for the club’s construction.
Wake-Robin Golf Club was founded by Helen Webb Harris in 1937, becoming the first black women’s golf club in the U.S. The club immediately began petitioning for desegregated golf courses in D.C. In 1938, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes approved construction of a nine-hole course that would become Langston. Black golfers in D.C. finally had a home. Three years later, Ickes ordered the desegregation of all public golf courses.
Wake-Robin has been based at Langston since its opening.
Due to Langston’s impact on African-American culture and the game of golf, the course was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
“It’s a truly special place and everyone who lives in or visits Washington should take the time to learn about the history of the place,” said Elder.
As of late 2018, the National Park Service is again looking for a new concessionaire. While the bones of the course remain strong, it has relied on outside help to stay up to par in recent years.
Mike McCartin, a resident of nearby Arlington, Va., and an architectural understudy of course designer Tom Doak for more than a decade, has taken note. McCartin wrote his graduate thesis at the University of Georgia about East Potomac Park Golf Course, another National Park Service course which hosted the only USGA championship in D.C. – the 1923 U.S. Amateur Public Links.
“Being one of the first courses in the country specifically built for the African-American population, it was a challenge from the start,” said McCartin. “A lot of people persevered for a long time to make it happen. The history and the people who have been involved there make it a special place.”
And hopefully it remains a special place for generations to come.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.