Police were called on five African-American women for playing too slow. The women allege the crime was "golfing while black." Inside a two-year fight for justice
Golf was taken from them that day. That’s what hurts the most, what they worry won’t return. Encountering discrimination, yes, that does a number on the heart. That’s also how things go in central Pennsylvania. “It’s sowed into the fabric of this county,” says Myneca Ojo. “It’s systemic. We’ve been dealing with this since we were born.”
The golf course, however, is supposed to be a refuge, where life and its ills can be paused, if only for a few hours. On that afternoon, the real world invaded the sanctuary of Ojo and her friends, a round of golf ended by confrontation and police intervention. They maintain they were threatened, humiliated, bullied. In a game they adored, at a club where they were members.
“They tried to ruin what we loved,” says Sandra Thompson.
On April 21, 2018, five African-American women played a round of golf that turned into a two-year odyssey. An odyssey revealing the warts of small-town politics, government red tape, gender and racial tension, and the sport.
• • •
Myneca Ojo, Sandra Thompson, Karen Crosby, Sandra Harrison and Carolyn Dow are members of the “Sisters in the Fairway,” a band of 20 or so minority female golfers in York County, Pa. The five have been together since 2011 (Harrison and Dow are sisters), meeting a few times a month at different courses. But near the end of the 2017 season, they decided to find a permanent home base, applying for and receiving membership at Grandview Golf Club, a semi-private course and the oldest course in the county.
Also happening in 2017 was a transfer of ownership at Grandview, with Jordan Chronister, son of former York County commissioner Steve Chronister, and Steve’s brother-in-law and York County controller, Greg Bower, purchasing the property. The Sisters in the Fairway attended a season-opening party at the course on March 30, 2018, and put their membership to use for the first time on April 21.
The group had tee times for two threesomes, the first at 10 a.m., but did not begin their rounds until 10:39 a.m. because of a frost delay, according to documents filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The women also would be behind a scramble tournament. A sixth member of their group did not show up, so Thompson approached the starter and asked if they could play as a fivesome. The starter gave the women the greenlight, as did a group of three men behind them on the tee sheet. Excited to begin their season, the Sisters were off. Their joy was short-lived.
The women ran into a back-up at the second hole as the group ahead had yet to clear the fairway, but the wait was no longer than five minutes. After their tee shots, Ojo and Crosby hopped in their cart and noticed a white-haired man approaching from the clubhouse.
“I knew he was affiliated with the club but didn’t know in what capacity,” Crosby says. “I thought he was coming over to welcome us. But when he got close, he approached in a very aggressive manner.”
The man identified himself as the owner and told Ojo and Crosby they were not keeping pace. He hailed the other three women but was intercepted by Thompson, who recognized it was Steve Chronister.
“He said we weren’t keeping pace. I tried to explain to him the delay wasn’t our fault,” Thompson says. “The group ahead was still on the green. He then told us to leave. I replied we wanted to play. He then offered to refund our membership. I reiterated we were going to play, and he huffed off.”
The women finished the hole but were shaken. “Two holes into our membership, we are being yelled at for something we didn’t do,” Dow says. Adds Harrison: “It was overwhelming. We didn’t know what was going on.” The moment hanging heavy, the five forged ahead with their round.
Unbeknown to the women at the time, Chronister had called 911, requesting the services of the police. Audio of the call has since been released.
“We have a tough situation here with a group of golfers that decides they don’t want to abide by the rules,” Chronister said. “They’re holding everybody up.”
“No weapons or anything like that, right?” the dispatcher asked.
“It’s even worse than that, but anyway I can’t ...” Chronister said. The dispatcher cut off Chronister, asking him to clarify.
“OK, sir, there’s no weapons, right?” the dispatcher asked.
“No,” Chronister said. “Other than her mouth, there’s not any weapons.”
Officer Erika L. Eiker of the Northern York County Regional Police was dispatched to the course. In her statement of the response, Officer Eiker said:
“I rode a golf cart with the general manager out to the area where the females were at and found them to be at hole five. Prior to speaking with Thompson and other females I spoke again with Chronister who advised that the females were caught up to where they should be and requested that I no longer speak with them and cause further issues. At this time, I rode back to the facility without contacting Thompson and took no further action.”
Ninety minutes later, the police were beckoned back to Grandview.
• • •
The Sisters say they finished the front nine in an hour and 45 minutes, but disillusionment had set in. “It was just terrible,” Dow says. “Golf is a mental game, right? After being harassed like that, I lost the will to play.” Crosby and Harrison agreed, deciding to quit. Ojo and Thompson attempted to play the back.
Ojo and Thompson went into the clubhouse to get drinks and use the bathroom. They estimate the break took 20 minutes. When they got back to their cart, they motioned the group behind them—which included Jerry Higgins and Damen Carter-Mann—to play through; Higgins declined, as his partners were heading to the snack stand.
But as Ojo and Thompson turned to the tee, they noticed five men standing in front of their cart. It was Steve Chronister, his son Jordan and three staff members.
“I saw these five men, they were drinking beer. I at first didn’t recognize any of them, so I walked behind the cart,” Ojo says. “That’s when Jordan started yelling at me, ‘You can’t play. You took 20 minutes at the turn; you’re not going to be able to play.' And I’m thinking, Wait a minute, who are you? Then Steve started bantering about giving us our memberships back again.”
Ojo and Thompson say the men then surrounded them, telling them they had five minutes to vacate the premises and that authorities had been called.
At that point, both women retrieved their phones and began filming. It was their only defense, they say, as 50-year-old black women. Just nine days before, two black men were controversially arrested down the road at a Philadelphia Starbucks as they were waiting for a business associate. Earlier in the week, a black man and his guest were racially profiled at a New Jersey gym.
“We both knew we had to document what was happening,” Thompson says. “ And the video speaks for itself.”
Rather than leaving, Ojo and Thompson decided to wait for the police, deeming it imperative to tell their side of the story. “I’m an attorney. Getting a police visit jeopardizes my license,” Thompson says. Dow is more blunt of Ojo and Thompson’s resolution: “They took a risk. The unfortunate truth is, if you’re a person of color, you know the end result when the police are called, most of the time that is,” Dow says. “Thank God we had cool-headed officers.”
The police, which again included Officer Eiker, asked for the women’s ID, then conversed with the club staff. The officers returned to Ojo and Thompson, and relayed that the course wanted the women to leave. Feeling they had been heard, Ojo and Thompson obliged.
Before the women left, Higgins approached. He leaned down, as if to tie his shoes, and handed Ojo a scorecard with his phone number attached.
• • •
The women uploaded the video and their accounts of the incident on Facebook that Saturday night. By Monday, it was viral.
The story was covered in national newspapers and telecasts. NPR and “The Daily Show” ran segments. Entertainer John Legend posted the story on Twitter, writing, “Please stop calling the police on black people who are just trying to live.”
Among those speaking out: Damen Carter-Mann, one of the men playing behind the Sisters. “These ladies were not holding us up at all,” Carter-Mann posted on Facebook. “I’m in the video. … We didn’t have to wait one bit. It’s a shame they had to go through this.”
Golf has an uneven history with women, as well as with golfers of color. Inflaming matters was York’s checkered past. Sentiments still linger from violent race riots in 1969; just last year, racist flyers were distributed against the area’s first African-American mayor.
Civil-rights organizations arranged protests, and the Sisters—now known as “the Grandview Five”—met with government officials. Pennsylvania state senators Vincent Hughes and Anthony Williams took particular interest in the plight of the Grandview Five. “Without their work, the story may have disappeared,” Ojo says. On April 26, Hughes and Williams, along with Gov. Tom Wolf, called for a formal investigation from the state’s human-relations commission.
“I’m just so damned frustrated,” Hughes said. “We have to deal with situations like this too frequently. This time, police determined it was not a matter they should have been involved in, but it is appalling that someone would call the police for a non-violent incident where the only crime was being black on a public golf course.” Added Wolf: “We must do everything we can to curb the painful and far-reaching impact of bias, prejudice and hate on individuals across the commonwealth. We must all work together to stand up for what is right and protect individuals in our communities from discrimination.”
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission usually does not convene without an official complaint from a plaintiff—“Far from the norm,” said commissioner Michael Hardiman—but this was a special case. The PHRC announced it would hold a two-day hearing, beginning on June 21, 2018.
The Grandview Five gave their testimony, clear-eyed. Ojo remarked she couldn’t play golf in the York area because of Chronister’s “influence in the golf community” and Crosby said she “isn’t comfortable going out on a golf course like I was prior to” the incident. Harrison broke down on the stand.
“I didn’t want the attention. I just wanted to play golf,” Harrison said to the commission. “I felt like we had targets on our back. ... The day has infested our lives. It’s affected our personal relationships and golfing experience in the county. It makes me think of my grandchildren; they still have to live in York County after this.”
“This is something that needed to be exposed, but there are now renewed attacks,” Thompson said. “People have told me to quit playing the race card or that I should’ve just listened and remained a second-class citizen.
“We were the only African-American women on that course. They treated us differently because of that.”
Chad Lassiter, executive director of the PHRC, commended the women for their courage. But, he noted, “We hear these women telling their stories, it would be really great if we had a counter narrative as well,” he said.
That’s because the Chronisters were absent from the proceedings.
Grandview had stayed mostly silent since the confrontation. The day after the incident, JJ Chronister, Jordan’s wife, issued a public apology to the women.
“Yesterday at Grandview Golf Club, several of our members had an experience that does not reflect our organization’s values or our commitment to delivering a welcoming environment for everyone,” read a statement, picked up by local media. “We are disappointed that this situation occurred and regret that our members were made to feel uncomfortable in any way. We have reached out to the members who shared their concerns to meet in-person, to fully understand what happened so that we can ensure it never happens again. Our team is very sorry for any interaction that may have made any member feel uncomfortable. Please know that we are taking this issue very seriously and expect our own organization to meet the highest standards for service that allows for everyone to feel comfortable and welcome.”
However, a statement was released by the club proper the next day, backtracking from JJ’s comments.
“Grandview currently has 2,400 members. In the past players who have not followed the rules, specifically pace of play, have voluntarily left at our request as our scorecard states,” read the statement. “In this instance, the members refused to leave so we called police to ensure an amicable result. The members did skip holes and took an extended break after the 9th hole. We spoke with them once about pace of play and then spoke with them a second time. During the second conversation we asked members to leave as per our policy noted on the scorecard, voices escalated, and police were called to ensure an amicable resolution.”
Still, given the chance to speak in front of the commission, the Chronisters passed. The committee said it informed the Chronisters and Grandview of the hearing on June 7. The offer was declined on June 20.
Which could have been problematic for the Grandview Five, as the commission was hearing only one side of the interaction. Even the officers, while testifying they had never received a slow-play complaint, couldn’t speak to what happened because they had not arrived in the heat of either confrontation.
Luckily for the Sisters, one person was willing to go on the record: Jerry Higgins.
Higgins is a self-confessed avid golfer—he admitted he snuck in 18 holes before the hearing—and had been playing for 50 years at the time of the incident. A manager at a local warehouse, Higgins, who is white, told the panel he had never witnessed anything like he saw that day at Grandview.
“I saw everything,” Higgins said. “It’s not right.”
According to court documents, Higgins said the women had been friendly, that they showed great etiquette, and that they were far from slow on the course. “There was no problem with the pace of play,” Higgins said during the hearing. “I hadn’t waited to hit a shot all day. The group of five women did not slow me down in any way.”
On the video, Jordan Chronister can be seen apologizing to Higgins, which Higgins rebuffed. He reiterated to Chronister and the staff that the women had done nothing wrong. According to Higgins, Chronister replied twice, “It’s not about that.”
“[Grandview] knew who they were and they didn’t want them at their golf course,” Higgins testified. Higgins later deduced the Sisters were the only minorities at the course that day.
Higgins spoke for only 45 minutes, but his words resonated in the York City Council Chambers. “He validated their story,” Lassiter said, referring to the Grandview Five. “It wasn’t just the women’s narrative. Higgins’ testimony was a profound truth.”
Higgins could not be reached for comment for this story. In a July 2018 interview with the Central Penn Business Journal, Higgins said he gave up his Grandview membership after the incident.
The hearing ended on June 22, and the women believed they would receive a verdict soon afterward. “With our testimony of us, with Higgins, it should have been a no-brainer,” Thompson says.
“From the beginning, we trusted the process,” Ojo says. “We wanted to do everything in good faith. We wanted to give the governor the courtesy of seeing this through with the hearing.”
It was a faith that would be put to the test.
• • •
The first wrench came in July 2018. The PHRC announced it would conduct another hearing, this time on July 20, to allow Grandview management another chance to air their version of the event.
“Because representatives from Grandview did not participate in the first two days of hearings, PHRC’s commissioners have decided that additional testimony is needed,” said Kathy Morrison, the commission’s chief counsel. “Therefore, subpoenas for testimony from additional witnesses have been issued.”
However, that meeting was canceled after Grandview petitioned for a motion to stay. From there, the case went into stasis for 20 months.
Over that period the gravity and weight of the case grew on the Sisters, putting a strain on their professional and personal lives. Despite national support for the Grandview Five, the Chronisters remained popular in the area. “There was so much backlash for something we didn’t do,” Ojo says. “You hear and see all these nasty things about you, and you can’t respond. You don’t want to drop to their level, but it eats you up.”
Most of the women stopped playing golf, still traumatized by their experience.
“What I loved about golf was it was very welcoming. It was nice and refreshing. All of that was removed,” Harrison says. “As a women, it’s scary enough as is to play alone. Now with this ... that outlet is gone.”
“Many of us work professional jobs,” says Ojo, a director of diversity and inclusion at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. “We could let our hair down [playing golf]. It was something we look forward to.”
Ojo tried to play, but as a result of the incident, courses around York didn’t know how to treat her. “There was a level of discomfort with the other courses because we were highly recognized,” she says. “It was almost as unwelcoming as Grandview.
“The very thing we utilized as our respite, the golf course, had been taken away.”
The Grandview Five ended up filing an official complaint against the PHRC, wondering what was taking so long. In response, the PHRC issued an apology for the delay but said the investigation was ongoing and blamed budget cuts from the state for holding proceedings up.
“We all live with discrimination at some level,” Harrison said. “But it had become more than just us, and began having a negative impact. I wasn’t sleeping.”
The frustration was not singular to the Grandview Five. Steve Chronister decided to run again for county commissioner in 2019. During his campaign, he broke his silence in an interview to the York Daily Record.
Chronister said his business suffered a $150,000 loss from the incident. He had refused to take diversity training because he wasn’t a racist, although followed by remarking, “Maybe I don’t understand what a racist is. I have no idea.” He further said the women misrepresented the events of the day and had hatched a plan on the ninth hole to create a public incident.
“What I’m learning is that the Jussie Smollett case is a perfect example of what we’re all learning. It’s a different world,” Chronister told the York Daily Record, a reference to the actor who was indicted for staging a hate-crime act. “There is nowhere in York County those women should be afraid to go.”
The Grandview Five would not comment on Chronister’s remarks. Chronister would go on to lose his election bid, coming in fourth with 12 percent of the vote.
• • •
Finally on Jan. 23, 2020, 19 months after the original two-day hearing, the PHRC announced there was probable cause of racism and sexism in the case of the Sisters in the Fairway against Grandview Golf Course, and granted the women the right to sue.
It was not so much relief as it was vindication for the women, their characters questioned, their willpower tested for nearly 18 months. “More than that, it was a sense of closure,” Harrison says.
A private mediation was announced for Feb. 11, but Chronister declined to participate, wanting a public hearing instead. He would later offer free golf lessons to the Grandview Five as a proposed settlement.
“Why would we ever want to be near him again?” Thompson says. “It showed he’s still clueless." Sensing a stalemate, the women were forced to exhaust their last option.
Almost two years to the day after the incident took place, Ojo and Crosby filed a racial and gender discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on April 20. Dow and Harrison filed a similar lawsuit in federal court the next day, and Thompson started a case in the York County Court of Common Pleas. Asked why they did not file together, the women mentioned they hold different perspectives on what the outcome should be.
In response, Chronister issued a statement. Calling it “corruption at its finest,” Chronister asked for a full investigation into the PHRC, including the director, Lassiter.
“Throughout the hearings, the five accusers testified under oath and before this kangaroo court, asserting the false claims and ultimately committing perjury, which I can prove,” Chronister said. “It is of utmost importance that we shed light on the wrongdoing that has taken place with the PHRC to ensure that this never happens again to another small business.”
Golf Digest reached out to the Chronister family for this story. They did not speak on record, instead directing attention to a story that accuses the PHRC of not following procedure with numerous investigations.
In response, Leslie Marant, attorney for the PHRC, said “Steve Chronister declined every invitation we’ve ever extended to him.” Marant also said there was no foul play regarding the Grandview case. “We firmly and unequivocally stand by the integrity and lack of bias in our investigation. This followed the same procedures as any other investigation.”
On April 28, 2020, the PHRC declared its case was officially closed.
• • •
There is a palpable sense of resolve from the Grandview Five as their tale moves to federal, district and common-pleas courts. It has been a trying and tiring crusade. “It was just against the Chronisters, it was against the system,” Ojo says. Adds Thompson: “We weren’t the ones that called the initial hearing. But now they get us involved, and we have to fight and claw to get answers we deserve.”
In one sense, this chapter is coming to an end, as courts will decide what compensation, if any, the Chronisters and the club owe the Grandview Five. (Ian Bryson, attorney for Harrison and Dow, is also asking for a declarative judgment that the women were discriminated against.)
However, the Grandview Five are realizing the fight does not end with the PHRC or their lawsuits. Galvanized by their experience, four of the five women have run for political office since the incident: Crosby for York County commissioner, Harrison for prothonotary, Ojo for Hanover mayor and Thompson for York County Court of Common Pleas judge. Ojo won her bid, becoming the first African-American mayor in the town’s history.
“We have tried to turn this into a positive,” Harrison says. Says Ojo: “People roll their eyes, but this wasn’t about us. It was taking an injustice and flipping it in a way that could help our community and minorities across the country.” The women have also been instrumental in hosting race-related town halls across the county.
As for the Sisters in the Fairway ... well, it’s tough to seek asylum in a place that exerted so much pain. Someday, perhaps. Hopefully. “The hurt, it’s still too raw to go back,” Dow says.
And yet their mission is to not let that day define them for the worse. “I don’t know if my love for golf will come back, but to surrender it totally is to let them win,” Harrison says. “If this has taught me anything, it’s that we have a message to tell, and it’s this: Sports, the ones that traditionally don’t deal with black people ... give us a chance to play.”