Bridge Over Troubled Waters (DOC)

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Theodora: “We cut our teeth on cards.”

Leona: “Remember the first time Willie C. came home from A&I? We used to hide in her room so she

could teach us bridge.”1

        Colonel Robert Friend and Dr. Arnold Jones believe world-class bridge players deserve world-

class recognition. Which is why Jones hopes the newly formed United States Bridge Federation can

persuade the International Olympic Committee to sanction bridge as an Olympic sport.

        “I‟m optimistic about bridge attaining the status of a medal sport,” 2 says Dr. Jones, a retired

psychologist and former president of the mostly black American Bridge Association (ABA). Jones‟

positive attitude matches the ABA‟s solid track record.

        Decades ago the group fought and won an even greater battle. The all-white ACBL refused to

permit ABA players to compete in ACBL tournaments. ”We wanted to eliminate racism in the ACBL,” 3

says Dr. Jones. “But we also wanted to maintain our separateness and uniqueness and not be subsumed

into the ACBL.”4

        Although, according to Dr. Jones, the ABA differs from the ACBL in its “approach to bridge,” 5
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members of both organizations share the same passion for the game. That‟s why when racial politics

reared its ugly head, African-Americans persevered out of a genuine love for the sport.

        In fact, notwithstanding the negative or ambivalent attitude many blacks have for card games,

various forms of bridge have always played a role in the African-American culture. Although religious

folks equated cards with gambling and pre-Civil War legislation, which (in Southern states) often

declared card-playing a crime, black historian James Oliver Horton6 tells of middle-class African

Americans who played card games, in the 1850s, in Boston boardinghouses.

        According to whist expert Angel Beck,7 slaves developed their own forms of bridge and whist

(the precursor to bridge) during the Civil War. By 1880, whist was the second most popular partners

card game in the United States.

        At the beginning of the twentieth century, before the era of television and “talkies,” African-

Americans increasingly shifted their attention to cards. The all-black 9th Cavalry, nicknamed the

“Buffalo Soldiers,” formed card groups, as did college fraternities and sororities. Author and sociology

professor William H. Jones explains how wealthy black students at Howard University abandoned dice

for poker and bridge.8 Jewel Eugene Kinckle Jones, the first executive secretary of the National Urban

League, remembers playing whist at Cornell in 1906. Roscoe Giles, a fraternity brother, recalls how

“Jones would start a game of whist and…would play until the distracting noise (of their singing

landlady) cleared.”9

        Bridge caught on with women, too. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who in 1902 opened the Palmer

Institute--a private school for upper-class blacks--became a bridge fan.10 So did A‟Lelia, the wealthy

daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, a cosmetics entrepreneur. 11 And during the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem

social clubs like The Wall Street Boys Association and The Northeasterners (a women‟s group), added

to the popularity of the game. 12
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        Bridge, however, attracted not just smart college types. In Phoebe Turman‟s oral history of the

early 20th century, she recounts how “hot suppers” (socials) in South Carolina usually turned to card

games for entertainment.13 Later, as more African Americans fled the South, these social gatherings

morphed into “rent parties,” for which people paid an admittance fee of 25 cents to 50 cents. The

money went to help pay the family‟s rent and necessities.14

        African-American playwright Sandra Seaton says many ladies‟ bridge clubs in the South met at

least weekly. Seaton‟s aunt, Camille Howell, and mother, the late Hattye Harris, belonged to a

Tennessee bridge club called “The Bridgettes.” “Besides reading novels or sitting around talking and

visiting, that‟s all there was to do,”15 Howell told Seaton. “It was an enjoyable form of recreation.”16

        Bridge attracted enough of a following, that by the early 1930s, 35 black players barred from

joining the all-white ACBL organized their own bridge association. Most of the “founding fathers” and

early members came from the middle class. They had distinguished themselves professionally, and

today, would be called power brokers.

        Several documents describe and occasionally disagree about the ABA‟s origins, but historian

Raymond H. Mathis fixes the date at 1932.17 He wrote that the idea for a black bridge organization was

born at the Cromwell School of Contract Bridge in New York City.

        A 1906 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth and the first African-American CPA, John W.

Cromwell was the first of the ABA‟s high-achieving old guard. He learned bridge in college, won a

prize in a bridge puzzle contest sponsored by Vanity Fair Magazine, and was “fairly well-known in

bridge circles.” 18At one point he was invited to join the Knickerbocker Whist Club in New York, but

later, the club retracted its invitation upon discovering Cromwell's race.

        Cromwell's accounting practice mainly consisted of small African-American businesses such as

churches, restaurants and funeral homes, but he also served as comptroller at Howard University. He
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mentored many black accountants by offering them training positions in his firm. 19

        Other ABA pioneers include Dr. Austin Maurice Curtis, Jr., Richard A. Harewood and Richard

Howard Harris, Sr. Curtis was the physician-son of a prestigious Howard University surgeon;20

Harewood served two terms in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1937 to 1939 and again in

1957 to 1959;21 and Harris, called the father of ABA bridge in Nashville, taught school for many years

and founded the Nashville Duplicate Bridge Club.22

        M.E. DuBissette, a New York physician, became the ABA‟s first president. According to his

son, Michael Edmund DuBissette, Jr., an 81-year-old retired physician in Stanford, Connecticut, his

father excelled in bridge, often using a “goulash”23 of bridge systems. On Saturdays, Dubissette, Sr.

played bridge in his Manhattan office with several ABA cronies, including Samuel Battle (the first

African-American NYC police officer),24 Dr. Conrad Edwards and Dr. Sidat Singh. Sometimes 12-year-

old Michael DuBissette played too, a hobby he would continue his whole life.

        An “honest”25 man who “developed something he loved,” 26 Dubissette pledged to promote

auction and contract bridge as a national pastime; to cooperate with other clubs and bridge

organizations; and to honor a code of ethics that prohibited fraud and all forms of cheating. Members

took this last proscription so seriously that in 1946, Georgia L. Stevens, the ABA‟s executive secretary,

opposed cash prizes for an upcoming national tournament: “We have always kept our records and

reputation so clean...of any semblance or taint of gambling...., “ she wrote. “Even the strictest of church

members have never been able to find anything to criticize....” 27

         Since some ABA members also belonged to the American Tennis Association, another black

organization, Dr. DuBissette wrote in 1932 that “the American Bridge Association would aim at

acquiring the “enviable record...made in the realm of sport by the American Tennis Association.”28 The

first national bridge championship took place at Buckroe Beach, Virginia, in August, 1933.
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        Although the turnout was relatively small, the ABA grew substantially in 1936 when the

Eastern Bridge League (in New York and New Jersey) merged with the ABA.29 A few years later, says

Michael DuBissette, his father left the presidency after his wife died. “He went into a shell for a while,

moved to North Carolina and gradually got back into playing and even teaching bridge.”30

        Another ABA pioneer was Lylburn L. Downing, a Roanoke, Virginia, pastor, probation officer

and community volunteer. In 1927, Rockbridge (Virginia) county's school superintendent named a

Lexington, Virginia, school in Dowling's honor. 31

        In 1938, Dr. E. T. Belsaw, a dentist from Mobile, Alabama, took up the presidential reins.

Determined to expand the ABA, he enlisted the help of the Associated Negro Press. According to that

year's annual report, announcements of ABA competitions appeared in 70 black newspapers. Soon the

ABA extended from coast to coast, and membership had grown to nearly 5,000. Expansion brought

more visibility and importance to the ABA, but Belsaw knew integrity took precedence over power-

seeking behavior.32 ”In a letter to another member, he described several “unpleasant things”33 that

occurred at the first few New York tournaments; among them a player caught cheating. Later, Belsaw

wrote, “Playing bridge for pleasure should be paramount and supreme in our minds. We must never

yield to the thought of winning at any price....”34

        That value guided Belsaw and extended beyond his connection with the ABA. Active in civic

service, he delivered many graduation speeches in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, pioneered the

Boy Scout movement there and served as spokesman and role model for the black community. In honor

of lifelong community service, which included directing the YMCA and presiding over the Mobile

Medical Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, a Mobile elementary school bears his name.35

        During Dr. Belsaw‟s tenure-- from 1936 to 1949--another strong personality emerged. William

R. Tatem, the editor of the ABA “Bulletin,” developed the publication into what bridge expert and
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ACBL member Oswald Jacoby, author of HOW TO FIGURE THE ODDS, considered an excellent

journal, far superior to that of the ACBL.36 In 1983 while reviewing ABA historical correspondence,

Tatem wrote, “I endeavored to develop the Bulletin as a voice not only for those in command, but also

for members with constructive criticism and suggestions....” 37 Tatem wanted the Bulletin to unite

regional bridge clubs. He also wanted to promote the ABA.38 For that reason, Tatem invited bridge

author Pablo Scarfi, an Englishman, to contribute to the bulletin. “It occurred to me,” wrote Tatem,

“that it might not be a bad idea to let even a few people in England know that colored people in

America are a part of the bridge world too.”39 Not surprisingly, Tatem hoped the ABA‟s visibility

would accelerate the “battle for racial advancement and interracial understanding.” 40

        In 1950 when the American Bowling Congress dropped its “color bar,”41 Tatem hoped the

ACBL would follow suit. That dream would take many more years to be fully realized.

        Tatem participated in much of the early decision making, says Kenneth Cox, a former

administrative assistant for the NYC post office and executive secretary of the ABA. A close friend of

Tatem, Cox describes the editor as a “hardworking intellectual with a great sense of humor.”42 (Cox

founded the Triangle Bridge Club in New York, served as national vice president and executive

secretary and still plays twice a week.)

         Ironically, Tatem played little bridge, preferring to go to the horse track in whatever free time

he could steal from his work as a linotype operator in New Jersey. A humble man who could be

enigmatic at times, Tatem once wrote:”I like to think that key men...are keeping the Association going

by their common effort, cooperation and genuine understanding of each other‟s contribution. But it unhealthy thing when anyone gets the idea he is indispensable.” 43

        However if anyone was truly indispensable, it was Victor R. Daly. He, along with a small cast

of like-minded members navigated the turbulent waters of racism, all the while preventing divisive
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ABA factions from tearing the organization apart. Born into privilege, Daly graduated with honors in

1915 from a Bronx high school. Two academic scholarships helped pay his way through Cornell. Then

in 1917, with the onset of World War I, Howard University convinced the Army that black men wanted

to serve their country. Designated a first lieutenant, Daly joined the 367th Infantry, the famous Buffaloes

Regiment in Long Island. After winning the Croix de Guerre in France, he returned stateside and

graduated Cornell. 44

        Literary and administrative abilities vied for Daly‟s career choice. At one time he was business

manager of The Messenger, a Socialist magazine considered the only radical Negro Magazine in

America; business manager of the Journal of Negro History; and a writer about race relations,

segregation and lack of employment for non-whites. In 1932 Daly published his only long fictional

work. Critics considered NOT ONLY WAR: A STORY OF TWO GREAT CONFLICTS to be the first

novel authored by a black person that analyzed the psychology and experiences of black soldiers in

World War I. To this day, it remains an important African-American contribution to the fictional

literature of that war. 45

        In 1934, however, Daly put aside his literary career to become an interviewer at the U.S.

Department of Labor. He advanced quickly, and in 1956 won the Distinguished Service Award. When

he retired in 1966, he held the position of deputy director of the United States Employment Service for

the District of Columbia.46

        During 16 years as president of the ABA, Daly confided to Tatem that he had “so much to do,

and so little time to do it in.” 47According to Kenneth Cox, Daly was one of the ABA‟s “giants;”48 if

not, an “elitist.”49 “There were few blacks in those days so well educated that they always spoke

grammatically correct,”50 says Cox. “And he had a mellifluous voice that made him a wonderful
speaker at ABA functions.”
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        When Daly took over the presidency in 1950, Merze Tate, PhD, who taught at Howard

University, joined the ABA publishing board. A graduate of Western Michigan University who had

attended Harvard and Oxford Universities, she had already gained recognition as an eminent scholar of

international affairs. In 1948 she wrote THE UNITED STATES AND ARMAMENTS. 52

        Tate‟s enthusiasm for bridge led her to co-found and actively run two ABA-affiliated clubs in

Washington, D.C. A top-notch competitor, she won 15 national, regional and local matches in less than

three years and became a junior master in only nine months–a record then. Before she died in 1996,

Tate made many civic contributions, traveled extensively, wrote five books on international affairs,

created a film for the U.S. Department of State and earned patents for two household appliances.

Inducted into the Contemporary Division of Michigan‟s Hall of Fame, Tate also lived long enough for

Western Michigan University to establish the Merze Tate Center for Research on School Reform and

Educational Technology. 53

        Also around the '50s, another remarkable woman, F. (Fannie) Alberta Peterson, joined the ABA.

From 1954 until 1983, she served as financial secretary of New York‟s Metropolitan Bridge Unit. But

her influence extended far beyond the Big Apple. In 1964 she founded the ABA scholarship fund,

which awarded $800 in tuition to deserving college students who had completed their freshman years.

“We can‟t pay the full tuition, but we can buy books and clothing for them,”54 said Peterson. In 1969

she also established the all-women Metropolitan Committee of One Hundred. Over 700 women

throughout the United States pooled their resources and knowledge to help needy young women. 55

        Another ABA VIP around this period was Dr. Joseph L. Henry, a dentist and the first ABA

member to earn 1,000 NMPs (national master points). An associate dean for faculty affairs at Harvard

University, Dr. Henry also was named Dean Emeritus at Howard University in Washington, DC. Each

year the National Dental Association awards five Dr. Joseph L. Henry Dental Scholarships ($2,000
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each) to minority students.56 Black Collegian Magazine recently interviewed him. 57

        Another ABA alumnus, Judge Amalya Kearse, a federal appeals court judge in NYC,

represented the United States at a World Bridge Federation tournament preceding the 2002 Salt Lake

City Olympics. Kearse has written several bridge books and is a five-time national bridge champion.58

        Although the ABA traditionally attracts a well-educated and professional class of people intent

on playing bridge, in the early years, a racial war of sorts simmered just below the surface. Leaders of

this racial insurrection remained optimistic, however: “The forces of reaction...lost a major battle in

organized baseball,” Daly wrote in 1946.59 "Before long the right flank now being held by the ACBL

will collapse.”

        Besides Daly, the main combatants were William Tatem, Dr.E.T. Belsaw, NY Times bridge

columnist Albert Morehead, and Geoffrey Mott-Smith. Tatem parlayed his interpersonal skills into a

strategic alliance with Morehead and several other ACBL allies such as John Liston, a Harvard

graduate. But serious cold-war negotiations only began after the ACBL barred Leon Beard, an African

American living in Canada, from taking part in a Toronto bridge tournament in December, 1946. ABA

President Belsaw called the incident the possible “disintegration of the ACBL,” 60 and Vice-President

Daly wrote that he hoped African Americans would “continue to storm the (ACBL‟s) gates.” 61

        Tatem took a broader, more global perspective. He believed that as leisure time increased,

tournament bridge would attract a world-wide audience and might bring greater peace and cooperation

between nations. But he wrote that this could happen only if organizations practiced non-

discrimination. “...We (the ABA) bar no one because of color or race,"62 Tatem said. "And we are

opposed to the exportation of this pattern to other countries (a reference to the incident in Canada).”63

        Local, more liberal, ACBL chapters rebelled at the national organization's repressive policy–for

example, in 1949, the New York chapter voted to admit blacks. Its decision resulted after an African
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American pair's team entered the ACBL‟s Eastern States Championships in New York City. More

support followed when Florence Osborn, a bridge columnist for the New York Herald Tribune,

endorsed the Greater New York Bridge Association‟s decision to admit African Americans to ACBL

tournaments. 64In a letter to Tatem in May, 1949, Daly wrote, “There is a job to be done, and the Fates

have cast us in a major role. I pray that we can meet the challenge.” 65

          Progress came again only a few weeks later when Daly and Morehead competed against Tatem

and Liston in Boston at the New England (ACBL) Association tournament. Soon after, the Boston

chapter opened its games to ABA members. Then the Western Division of the ACBL jumped on the

band wagon. But optimism among ABA members quickly plummeted when a number of Southern units

rejected the idea. 66“They based their arguments on laws in Southern states which do not permit

intermingling of the races, "wrote Tatem, “and the custom of hotels which will not allow (mixed-race)

tournaments in their rooms. This battle is not... even in sight of victory.” 67

          That reality was underscored in Chicago at a special joint committee meeting in August, 1949

between the ABA and ACBL. The ACBL voted against allowing local chapters to invite African-

American participation in tournaments. As a peace offering, however, the ACBL offered the ABA an

interleague game open to African Americans. Insulted, the ABA flatly rejected the offer. Two months

later, the ACBL polled its members on the issue of integration. Surprisingly, instead of the unanimous

rejection that the organization anticipated, there was only a 56 percent rejection–a weak majority at


          Meanwhile Daly espoused “meticulous care and diplomacy”69 in dealings with the ACBL,

knowing full well that the road ahead would be bumpy. In 1950 Geoffrey Mott-Smith proposed Victor

Daly as a member of the National Laws Commission (NLC) of the ACBL. The Commission turned

Daly down. 70 Mott-Smith‟s response? “However, the ice has been broken, and I am hopeful the NLC
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will someday adopt my proposal. It would be a pity if the law caught up with us before our own good


        That was prophetic. In the end, legislation became the engine that forced the ACBL onto the

right set of tracks. In a push for desegregation in schools, restaurants, etc., civil rights leaders like Jesse

Turner, Sr. president of the Memphis NAACP and a top-notch bridge player, staged boycotts, marches

and sit-ins. A 1941 graduate of LeMoyne College with a degree in mathematics, Turner, according to

his contemporaries, liked playing bridge with other NAACP members because of the game‟s

mathematical ties.72 ”He was to the point,” said a colleague. ”When he was the commander of a black
tank unit in Italy, he got out...and walked through the minefield before his tanks followed.”

            In defiance of the ACBL, more local units started to admit African Americans. “These

people...are totally oblivious of color, rank, or station in life,” wrote Tatem. “They don‟t care if you‟re

black, blue, or green; they just want you to snatch the cards out of the boards, bid „em and play


         Finally, in 1952, the ACBL, responding to the increased acceptance of African-American

participation in tournaments, passed an amendment giving each local unit the power to decide on its

membership.75 Tatem had hoped tournament bridge could be “cleansed” 76 without the government‟s

assistance, but the ABA gladly welcomed federal intervention when Congress outlawed hotels from

their practice of turning away African Americans.

        Still, it took until 1967 for the entire ACBL membership to accept a bylaw eliminating all racial

and religious discrimination.77 After the vote, Daly reportedly said, “We made no enemies and left no

scars.”78 Most historians give Daly credit for conducting negotiations with style and grace. As a result,

the ACBL and ABA have now established a relationship of mutual respect.

        Since those early years, the ABA has grown in membership to about 8,000 (an estimated 200
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members are white). Hundreds of ABA members also belong to the ACBL. (neither organization

records the race of its members, so black vs. white statistics are difficult to obtain). “Black people have

been playing cards forever,"79 said Mike Tillman, 31, a financial analyst interviewed by Black Family

Today. “It is really rooted in our history.”80

         Currently Richard Bowling, an electrical engineer, is president of the ABA; with Clarice Reid,

national vice president. Since retiring in 1998, after 26 years with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood

Institute (during which time she became national coordinator of its sickle cell disease program), she has

participated in local and national tournaments. 81 The ABA still enjoys its unique tradition of community

cohesiveness and charitable donations to nonprofits such as the United Negro College Fund and the


         Intellectual challenge is, of course, at the heart of bridge, whether it‟s an ABA or ACBL

tournament. “Bridge has always been a thinking game,” Camille Howell told Seaton.83 That may be one

reason Seaton chose to incorporate bridge into a drama about black lynchings in the pre-civil rights


         “The bridge game serves as a parallel to the...problem solving skills and mother-wit that the

women must show in order to survive and outwit the deputies,” 84 says Seaton. Taken a step further,

Seaton‟s metaphor might also explain how a group of black bridge aficionados in the 1930s were able

to strategize and democratize bridge. “Bridge individuals enjoy doing their thing,” 85 says Dr. Jones, a

Grand Life Master. “And it provides an avenue to learn and to stay alert.”86

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Description: History of the racially segregated American Bridge Association