WASHINGTON – Golfer Charlie Sifford had the rare honor of being recognized this week on a national stage – and meeting a new generation preparing to follow the cart path he blazed more than a half century ago.
The first African-American to play on the PGA tour after the PGA abolished its “Caucasian Only” clause in 1961, Sifford received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a White House ceremony Monday. At the U.S. Capitol a few hours later, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore hosted a reception in his honor to express its appreciation to the civil rights pioneer.
UMES is the nation’s lone historically black institution that offers a PGA-accredited golf management degree. UMES President Juliette B. Bell called the presidential medal presentation “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our university to showcase the next generation of minority golfers and highlight the continuing importance of broadening the diversity of those playing and working in the business of golf.”
The event, emceed by UMES junior Patrick Harris and Scott Walker of the Golf Channel, attracted more than 150 guests, including Wendell J. Haskins, PGA Senior Director for Diversity and Multicultural Initiatives, Fred Thompson, Jr., chief administrative officer of Thompson Hospitality, a PGA diversity supplier, and Roland S. Martin, TV host and news commentator.
Among the members of Congress paying tribute to Sifford were Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who helped arrange the event, and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C, who led a bi-partisan effort lobbying President Obama to honor Sifford.
“You have been what I call the Jackie Robinson of golf. I feel very strongly about that,” Clyburn said to Sifford sitting a few feet away.
Clyburn, an avid golfer, called the Presidential Medal of Freedom given Sifford “one of my proudest moments as a member of Congress.”
Regarded by peers during his prime as a championship-level competitor, admirers pointed out Sifford broke down barriers without a support network common in team sports. Testimonials during the reception also offered portrayed him as a popular and respected gentleman away from the course.
Among those taking in the tributes was UMES junior Norman Blanco.
“I really enjoyed hearing all those stories,” Blanco said. “It was an eye-opener. It makes me believe I can do much more with my life.”
When Sifford was Blanco’s age, he played golf in an era of segregation, much the way other African Americans did who aspired to play sports professionally.
Blanco was among a diverse delegation of UMES PGA golf management students and alumni who attended the reception.
Freshman Anthony Ward had heard stories as a child about Sifford’s sacrifices and struggles to integrate professional golf.
“He’s been a mile-marker for me,” Ward said. “I’ve always looked up to him, and now, getting a chance to meet him – this is a special day in my life.”
PGA member Anthony Stepney, coordinator of UMES’ diversity and inclusion initiatives in the golf industry, challenged reception attendees to draw inspiration from Sifford’s accomplishments and actively encourage minorities and women to take up the game.
“The time for talking is over,” Stepney said. “The time for action is now. We need you to be part of it.”
Kimberly Dumpson, UMES’ executive vice president, said "our students, most of whom are minorities and women, are pursuing a dream of working in the golf industry. We have an obligation to let them know of the impact of Charlie Sifford and remain committed to perpetuating his legacy of diversity and inclusion."
To commemorate the event, guests received a copy of Sifford’s book, “Just Let Me Play,” and Sifford received a keepsake drawing of his likeness by aspiring artist Taylor Dumpson, signed by nearly all guests in attendance.
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