THE LAUREL CHRONICLES
"A Place of Our Own":
The National Capital Country Club
By Kevin Leonard | This article originally appeared in Voices of Laurel Spring 2021
A map of the location from the promotional brochure soliciting memberships. SOURCE: MSRC, JESSE EDWARD MORELAND PAPERS, HOWARD UNIVERSITY
With Jim Crow laws firmly in command, leisure opportunities for Black Americans were always in short supply until the slow integration brought about by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The book African American Leisure Destinations Around Washington, D.C., by Patsy Mose Fletcher, does a remarkable job of identifying “several places in the Washington area that African Americans could claim as their own—safe havens where they could feel comfortable and able to relax without being subject to white rejection or mistreatment. Some places were black-owned; others were white-owned that catered to the black crowd; and a few others, some public, were open to blacks on special days.”
One of those Black-owned places was in Laurel, and its clientele was “among the wealthiest, prominent and most influential [African Americans] in America”: the National Capital Country Club.
An artist’s rendering of the proposed clubhouse/ballroom/meeting room. It was never built. SOURCE: MSRC, JESSE EDWARD MORELAND PAPERS, HOWARD UNIVERSITY
The upper crust of Black society in the Washington-Baltimore region was well represented by the officers of the club.
Dr. Emmett J. Scott, President and Chairman of the Board, had a prestigious career as a journalist, author, and government official, among other positions. In 1897, Booker T. Washington hired him as his personal secretary and advisor at the Tuskegee Institute. At the beginning of World War I, he was appointed Special Assistant for Negro Affairs to the Secretary of War, making him the highest-ranking African American in Woodrow Wilson’s administration. At the time of the National Capital Country Club’s founding in 1926, he was the Secretary-Treasurer of Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Harry S. McCard, Vice-President, was a nationally known medical director and lecturer from Baltimore. He frequently criticized the city’s Health Department and Mayor for the cause of equal rights in medical care. His family—his father was also a well-known attorney—was famous for its activism. McCard was also the founder of the all-Black American Tennis Association in 1916.
Judge James A. Cobb, Membership Committee Chairman, was a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney and law professor. He was appointed Judge of the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia in 1926, the same year the National Capital Country Club opened.
The rest of the investors were comprised of “bankers, lawyers, doctors, agency and fraternal leaders and business owners,” according to Fletcher. The club—which only consisted of the repurposed mansion at this point—opened in May 1926 with “a gala ball packed with well-wishers and visitors in town for the annual track and field meet held at Howard University.” As Fletcher put it, “the event heralded a bright future for a first-class ‘place of our own’.”
For the first year, the only amenity was the clubhouse, while the golf course was under construction. A wing was added to the mansion, and hotel accommodations with 10 bedrooms were added. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings were a constant blur of conferences, balls, dances, and dinners. Members—women were allowed as members—could bring guests to these festivities.
In 1927, the club opened a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts, a croquet field, and a billiards room. To mark the occasion, the club staged an 18-hole golf exhibition match between Harry Jackson and John Shippen. This was a big deal to local Black golfers.
Harry Jackson won the United States Colored Golf Association’s first Negro National Open the year before, in 1926. The association was formed in 1925 to fill the void for Black professional golfers, who were not allowed to play in the whites-only Professional Golfers Association (PGA).
John Shippen’s relatively unknown history is remarkable. Born in Anacostia in 1879 to a Black minister and Native American mother, the family moved to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation on Long Island in New York in 1888. After the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course was built near the reservation, the young Shippen began caddying and learning the game from the course’s pro. He became so good that the pro hired him as his assistant and Shippen gave lessons to White golfers.
In 1909, Dr. Emmett J. Scott represented Booker T. Washington as a member of a delegation that traveled to Liberia.
SOURCE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Harry McCard (1st row, 2nd from right) was the only Black member of the Mandolin Club at the University of Wisconsin in the 1890s.
SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN–MADISON
Judge James A. Cobb in 1931.
SOURCE: TULANE UNIVERSITY
John Shippen circa 1910.
When the U.S. Open was held at Shinnecock in 1896, a group of White members—many of whom had taken lessons from Shippen—entered him in the tournament, along with his friend, Shinnecock Indian Oscar Bunn, another golf prodigy. They were both entered as American Indians to skirt the no-Blacks rule.
But the 28 British and Scottish players—there were no other Americans entered as golf was still relatively new in America—objected. According to the PGA’s own history on its website, “Some of the professional players threatened to boycott the event when they discovered his race, but backed down when USGA President Theodore Havemayer defended Shippen [and Bunn]. Shippen tied for sixth and won $10. He goes on to play in five more U.S. Opens.”
Since Bunn was an amateur, John Shippen was the first American-born and Black professional golfer to play in the U.S. Open.
Shippen worked as a golf pro in between Black tournaments in the ensuing years at a number of places: Baltimore, Chicago, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. Author Lane Demas, in his book Game of Privilege, claims that Shippen worked for a while at the National Capital Country Club at some point.
But in 1927, Shippen, who was then 47 years old, squared off with Harry Jackson at the exhibition in Laurel. As described by Fletcher, Jackson, the hot young champion, “triumphed over the now ‘old lion’ to the delight of the crowds who had been treated to a rousing contest.”
The club was named in a mini scandal in 1935, when acclaimed Black actor Richard Berry Harrison died. Harrison, who was on the cover of Time magazine in 1935 just weeks before his death, was most famous for starring in the first all-Black cast in a Broadway play, The Green Pastures. It ran on Broadway for 16 months before touring Canada and the U.S. for years.
After Harrison died, the story came out that when the play was to open at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in 1933, the theater announced that only Whites would be permitted inside to see it. According to the Afro-American, “a group of local young professional men discussed the outrage” and suggested “that a good way to embarrass the theater’s management and center nationwide public attention on the theater’s indefensible position would be to kidnap the star of the show, Mr. Harrison.” The plan was to then spirit him “out to the National Capital Country Club until midnight.”
Apparently, one of the leaders of this “discussion” was Victor R. Daly, the Secretary of the National Capital Country Club.
Police were notified by someone who overheard the group and Harrison was afforded protection “much to his discomfiture,” reported the Afro-American. A local radio station reported the “plot” on the air and Daly was questioned by police, but Daly convinced the authorities it was just blowing off steam.
A Good Run
It was a good run—eight years—but, like everything else the club couldn’t weather the Great Depression. In 1934, the National Capital Country Club closed and was bought by one of the members, who reopened as a nightclub in May of that year. The nightclub was named “Club Chalcedony.”
According to the Afro-American, the new club “is the new hot spot between midnight and two a.m., when the curfew rings on liquor selling.” It also announced that “Oliver ‘Doc’ Perry, who taught Duke Ellington music, is playing the piano in the grill room.”
But the Club Chalcedony followed the same path as the National Capital Country Club four years later: unable to weather the Depression, it closed for good.