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Is this 70-year-old painting the first of a Black golfer by a Black artist?

February 08, 2022

Illustration courtesy of USGA

This watercolor—a man practicing his stroke in the enclosure of an upscale garden—is untitled and undated. It was painted around 1950 and might be the first artwork of a Black golfer by a Black artist. “Black Americans have played the game since the 1880s but for decades were invisible to most Americans,” says Rand Jerris, who oversees the USGA Golf Museum and Library in New Jersey. “Surviving photographs or illustrations of these pioneers typically reflect white perspectives, and most early representations border on being offensive.” Jerris acquired this painting (and another) for the museum collection after stumbling across an eBay listing.

The artist, Dox Thrash, is a figure of some significance. Born to a domestic worker in rural Georgia in 1893, he made his way north as a teen, working in a circus and later suffering gas shock on the last day of fighting in World War I. While completing WPA projects during the Great Depression, he co-invented a new method of etching copper plates called “carborundum prints.”

Successful enough to support a family, Thrash settled in Philadelphia and became part of a society of Black professionals whose energy anticipated the dawn of the civil rights movement. He died in 1965 at the age of 72, and in 2001, the Philadelphia Museum of Art curated the show, “Dox Thrash: An African American Master Printmaker Rediscovered.”

Black Americans have played golf since the 1880s, but early depictions of them by Black artists are rare.

Did Thrash play golf? Other than the two golf watercolors owned by the USGA Museum, no other evidence suggests he did. However, Thrash never treated other sports as subjects, so this might imply a special, personal connection to the game. Given his social set, he likely had friends who played Cobbs Creek, the 106-year-old municipal course that birthed many of the country’s pioneering Black golfers, such as Charlie Sifford.

“It’s fun to think of this as a self-portrait,” Jerris says. “What I love about this painting is the isolation of the lone figure, which probably reflects the experience of many Black golfers. Yet the wild, riotous colors evoke a sense of paradise and optimism for what was to come.”

It’s possible earlier depictions of Black golfers by Black artists exist. Such treasures have a way of turning up. What matters is, the world seems finally ready to look.