Community Comes Together to Erect Statue of Joseph M. Bartholomew, Sr.

by Anitra D. Brown

IMG_5942It took more than six years after flood waters and Hurricane Katrina ruined the city-owned golf course in Pontchartrain Park for the course to be renovated. A new, $9 million, 18-hole course reopened in November 2011. It was also about that time that a group began talking about ways to honor the legacy of the man who designed the original course.

“Once the golf course got back together, we’d sit around and say we need to do something to honor (Joe Bartholomew),” said Glynn Dexter, president of the Friends of Joe Bartholomew Golf Course organization. And he and others began to talk about the different ways they might recognize him—a Black man, born in 1881—just 16 years after the end of the Civil War—who would go on to design a number of golf courses throughout New Orleans—courses on which he could not openly play because of segregation.

Suggestions ranged from a portrait to a bust—both of which now sit inside the club house—to, ultimately, a statue. A statue to honor a man Dexter describes as an “entrepreneur and philanthropist” just seemed right.

The undertaking was organized with the Friends of Joe Bartholomew leading the way, though Dexter is quick to point out that the project benefited from a vast community network of support from individuals, including Dr. Myron Morehead and Liberty Bank President Alden McDonald, who were early and generous contributors; Bartholomew’s great-nephew and local businessman Louis Keyes; Acme Oyster House owner Mike Rodrigue; as well as support from the city of New Orleans, its Park and Parkways Department and director Ann McDonald.

“And we can’t forget our sculptor, Michael Bruno,” Dexter says. “He was one of those people that told us if you guys don’t tell the story, no one else will.”

Bruno says he was thrilled to work on the project for a variety of reasons.

“I loved it,” says Bruno. “It’s local. It’s our own story. It’s about an extraordinary individual. But most of all, it came from the community. People felt strongly about this issue; and they celebrated one of their own.”

Recently, the hard work and a community-wide effort paid off in June when local, state and national political, civic and business leaders, members of the Friends of Joe Bartholomew Golf Course and some of Bartholomew’s descendants gathered just outside of the Joseph M. Bartholomew, Sr. Club House to unveil the statue of his image. Attendees included members of Bartholomew’s family, including his grandson, Gregg DeMar, who took part in the program; state lawmakers, Sen. Ed Murray, Rep. Joe Bouie; representatives from the city, including Cedric Grant and Ann McDonald; and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who wasted no time after the ceremony changing out of his suit and tie in to golf appropriate garb, his clubs in tow.

Also on hand were local physician Dr. Morehead, McDonald, as well sculptor Thomas Bruno.

The Man

To be sure, honoring Bartholomew was about more than his contributions to golf in New Orleans or the fact that he built a golf course on land he owned and donated it to the city so that golfers—no matter their skin color—would have a place to play, Dexter says. Honoring Bartholomew was more important because of what he did, how and why he did it, and that he did it in the face of difficult times. Dexter uses bygone military references to make his case.

“I think about military battles. You would have a thousand soldiers scattered on the battlefield with the leader at the front shouting commands. There was no way soldiers in the rear could hear what was being said in the front. So they used flags or standards to provide them with direction, to help them keep their formation, and to determine the position of their regiment on the battlefield. Our kids need a standard, someone they could look up to—an example they can follow.”

And the life of Joseph M. Bartholomew is one such a standard.

“He was born right here before the turn of the century,” Dexter says. “He became prosperous at a time when (Black people had few choices and opportunities). He built that golf course, designed it and then gave it back to the city so there would be a place for everybody to hone their skills.”

Joseph Bartholomew’s introduction to golf began as it did for many young boys of color of his time. He was a caddie. He watched the golfers at the Audubon Golf Course; he taught himself the game and became quite the golfer. He was so good, in fact, it has been said that he was so good that Audubon club members backed Bartholomew in games in arranged matches against some of the best players of the time—Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, 1908 U.S. Open winner Fred McCleod.

Later, Bartholomew went to work at the Metairie Golf Club, where he would impress one member so much that he financed Bartholomew’s trip to New York to learn more about golf course architecture and design so that he could return and design a new course for the club. As the story goes, Bartholomew did just that. He designed and constructed the course in secrecy, which bothered some of the club’s members who verbalized their doubts about his skill and ability to complete the task. So he showed them—loading the club’s members into horse drawn wagons to reach the course’s remote locale to reveal his progress. So amazed were they by the caliber of his design and construction that they decided to pay him a little more money. Still, they were not so impressed that they would ever allow him to play the course. He went on throughout the 1920s, starting a family, working at Metairie Country Club and later New Orleans Country Club. He also built, but still couldn’t play on courses throughout the city and state, including ones at City Park, in Covington, Hammond, Abita Springs, Algiers and Baton Rouge.

Determined to enjoy the game despite segregated courses, Bartholomew designed and built seven holes on land he owned in Harahan. It was his; and there, he and his friends could play. No one–not even Jim Crow could stop them.

As the years went on, Bartholomew’s interests branched out from golf, though he still loved and played the game. He started a construction company and made real estate and other business investments. And he was generous, donating to Dillard and Xavier universities. He was a founding member of the Original Illinois Carnival Club, an all-around community leader. And when a new Gentilly subdivision for middle-class African-Americans was being built in the 1950s, Bartholomew was on deck to design to design and build a golf course for the subdivision.

It would become a jewel in Pontchartrain Park’s crown—the centerpiece of the subdivision, which opened 60 years ago as the first built for African-American families. Opening during the waning years of racial segregation, middle-class Blacks found a place to call home amid ranch-style houses and manicured lawns at a time when other suburban enclaves in the city were still doing all they could to keep Blacks out. One year after the subdivision was complete, the golf course—then known as the Pontchartrain Park Golf Course—opened.

The Statue

The work is a seven-foot tall, 350-pound bronze sculpture. It was sculpted from clay and cast locally at the artist’s studio. It depicts Bartholomew with his back to the clubhouse, facing the green, holding a club and walking, Bruno says.

“He is dressed in everyday clothes–in a manner that he would have to play golf,” Bruno says, adding that to him that is the most impressive part of Bartholomew’s story–that despite Jim Crow laws and other obstacles, this native New Orleanian prevailed by simply finding a way to do what he loved.

“He didn’t win any battles. He didn’t pass any laws,” the artist says. “He did what we all want to do. He enjoyed his life. It’s really a story of character and overcoming, so I wanted to portray him with tremendous dignity, but at the same time not grandiose So why there is nothing particularly special about getting ready to play golf, Bruno says it was critical that he used body language to convey dignity and pride with which the celebrated New Orleanian lived his life. He made certain his head was high; his shoulders, straight.

“He is enjoying the simple pleasure of playing golf; and it took a great amount of character and courage to achieve that goal. He is going to play golf; and we’re following him. He’s saying to us ‘come on, everybody.’ “

The Legacy

In 1979, the course at Pontchartrain Park was renovated and renamed in honor of Joseph M. Bartholomew, Sr., whose love for the game are undeniable. He could be spotted at the course well into his seventies. He died in 1971, at the age of 90 after suffering a stroke earlier that year. In 1972, he became the first African-American inducted in the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame.

Though the statue has been officially unveiled, there is still a need for financial support to accommodate its construction and maintenance. Dexter says individuals can support at a number of levels—starting with $100 engraved bricks that will be placed in the plaza around the statue to $5,000, for which donors will have a their names inscribed on a plaque placed on base of the sculpture, to $10,000 sponsorships. For a $10,000 donation, contributors receive a miniature version of Bruno’s sculpture of Bartholomew. The mini statues are limited, with only 10 being cast and only seven remaining, Dexter says, adding that donations of any amount are needed.

“Everybody can be a part of it,” he says. “That is what the brick drive is about.”

Dexter adds that the effort to get the statue of Bartholomew erected was the beginning of the group’s work in the community. With a number or retired educators and other professionals among its membership, he envisions mentoring programs for young people.

“They need to know they can be successful, and they will. We have to be there for them,” he says. “We’re a group of guys who believe we can make a difference in the community. We showed that Black men could do something if we came together. We didn’t need to be prodded to honor one of own. We didn’t need to ask for funds from big-name investors. It was a community effort. This was our first swing at it. There’s so much more that needs to be done.”

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