By Steve Huffman
Jim Melvin grew up across the street from Gillespie Park Elementary School, an area of east Greensboro that in the early 1930s remained largely rural.
Melvin, now 82, recalled that, “When I was about 7, I watched them build a golf course.”
It was a project that was to become Gillespie Golf Course, built on a farm named for Col. Daniel Gillespie, a Revolutionary War hero who became one of Greensboro’s founders.
Construction was through the Works Project Administration, a Depression-era public works program designed to help unemployed young men.
Melvin remembers that living so close to the course that opened in 1941 was a grand thing. When he was a boy and a snowstorm blanketed the area, Melvin and his friends would sled on a hill on Gillespie’s second fairway. When he was an adolescent, Melvin worked as a caddy at the course, lugging golf bags for tips.
Many of his fellow caddies, all of whom worked out of a caddy shack not far from the clubhouse, were older than Melvin, black men who – because of segregation laws of the era – were not allowed to play the course at which they worked.
The caddy shack is long gone, though its concrete base remains, located near Gillespie’s sixth green. It’s a reminder of the course’s past.
As he grew, Melvin, who would serve as Greensboro’s mayor from 1971-1981, and is now CEO and president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, became an avid golfer and played Gillespie often.
“It was a very good public golf course,” he said. “Then, in the ’60s, ignorance closed the course.”
The closing concerned integration, or specifically, Greensboro’s refusal to integrate. The course was city-owned, but leaders insisted that Gillespie was for the play of whites only.
Not everyone agreed.
It turned into one of the darkest times in the history of Greensboro and Gillespie; the city finally ordered by the courts to integrate the course.
Two weeks following the order, in the late 1950s, the clubhouse at Gillespie was burned by arsonists and the city’s fire marshal condemned the property. Not long after, the city council weighed in on the matter, vowing to get completely out of the recreation business.
Gillespie sat empty for years and the property on which the front nine holes stretched were sold and developed for other uses. Much of the topsoil from Gillespie was scraped away during those years, city officials convinced the course would never reopen.
It took a new city council to get matters changed, and it was 1962 before Gillespie reopened as the nine-hole layout it remains today.
Melvin said the course is still beautiful and well-maintained. He referred to it as “an oasis” in the community by which it is surrounded.
But he said he still regrets Gillespie doesn’t remain true to its original design.
“If the course was still there as it was, it’d be a wonderful 18-hole course,” Melvin said.
As it is, Gillespie has plenty going for it. Gillespie (it’s often referred to as “Gillespie Park”) is one of three golf facilities (Bryan Park and Bur-Mil Park the others) owned by the City of Greensboro. Gillespie is located at the intersection of Florida Street and Martin Luther King Drive, only about one mile from Greensboro’s downtown. It occupies an 88-acre tract.
In 1991, major alterations were done at Gillespie that included an additional set of tee boxes that allows the course to be played as an 18-hole layout. The course features small greens and plays between 5,107 and 6,445 yards. The main hazard is a tributary of the South Buffalo Creek that meanders through the course, coming into play on eight holes.
The course has a driving range and putting and chipping facilities. A restaurant is also included.
Bill Hill, now 72, grew up only a few blocks from Gillespie. He remembers that as a teen, he could walk to the course in eight minutes. He did so for several years in order to work, carrying bags for white golfers while Hill himself couldn’t play because of the color of his skin.
Still, Hill appreciated the job.
“It was a source of income,” he said. “It was an outlet.”
Hill, a Vietnam War veteran who spent eight years in the Army and is now retired after a 40-year stint with Lorillard Tobacco Co., doesn’t remember being especially angry over not being able to play Gillespie when he was young.
Blacks didn’t play a lot of golf in those days, he said. He and his black friends concentrated on football and basketball, and often played sandlot games with local boys who were white.
“As kids, we didn’t know no prejudices,” Hill said. “We just wanted to play ball.”
Nowadays, Hill plays a fair amount of golf at Gillespie and elsewhere. On a good day, despite his age, he’s still a threat to break 80.
In his younger days, Hill also caddied at Starmount Forest Country Club and other area courses, but remembers Gillespie in its 18-hole days as being the toughest of the bunch.
“If you could score at Gillespie, you could score anywhere,” he said.
Bob Brooks is Gillespie’s director of golf. He’s on his second stint in the position, having worked there from 1995-2005, then returning in 2012.
Brooks said he believes residents of the surrounding neighborhood take a great deal of pride in Gillespie.
“It’s an intricate part of the community,” Brooks said.