Former UK basketball star Sam Bowie said Wednesday that he and his family have been accepted for membership at Idle Hour Country Club, making him the club's first African-American member.
"I'm very flattered, very honored, very appreciative," said Bowie. "This wasn't about me making history," said the retired Los Angeles Lakers player. But, he added, "whether I ...want it to be a historical event or not, it is."
Although Idle Hour's white clubhouse, green golf course and black fence are clearly visible to thousands who drive on Richmond Road every day, until Bowie's acceptance it remained a symbol of exclusivity and old divisions based on race and class in Lexington.
Society's dictates changed more quickly than the club's. For example, when Otis Singletary was president of the University of Kentucky from 1969 to 1987, the university paid his dues at the club, but by 1987, a group of faculty members asked President David Roselle not to join because of perceived discriminatory practices.
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Neither former President Charles Wethington nor current President Lee T. Todd Jr. belongs to the club. (Wethington stepped down from the Lexington Club, a downtown dining establishment, in 2002 after he found out it had no black members.)
The Lexington Club now has black members.
At the time, UK officials said the university had an unwritten rule against business dealings with any discriminatory organizations.
That unwritten rule, many believe, is why UK basketball coach John Calipari joined the Lexington Country Club despite buying a house just a block away from Idle Hour. But with Bowie's inclusion, it's possible that UK would change its unwritten policy.
After the Roselle flap, then Idle Hour Chairman George Carey told the Herald-Leader: "There is no question society has changed more quickly than country clubs."
In 1999, the state Human Rights Commission began investigating Idle Hour Country Club and two Louisville clubs, the Louisville Country Club and the Pendennis Club, because they had no black members. The commission dropped the case last year because it could not find a plaintiff to assert they had been denied membership because of race, according to Morgan Ransdell, an attorney with the commission.
In 2006, both Louisville clubs announced they had black members.
Bowie has said he expected critics to call him a "token" member accepted at Idle Hour to end criticism. But Bowie said that would be incorrect.
Bowie said he approached Idle Hour members because his family has friends at the club, it's close to his home and he wants to golf there. Moreover, Bowie said, he can afford to pay the initiation fee, which he estimated at $55,000.
In 1993, Bowie became the first black member of Lexington Country Club on Paris Pike. He said he is keeping his memberships there and at Greenbrier Golf and Country Club off Winchester Road.
Calipari became a member of Lexington Country Club after taking the UK job this year. Bowie said he hopes that Calipari will join Idle Hour, too.
Idle Hour Club board chairman Phil Scott said Friday that Calipari had not applied. UK Athletic officials say they only pay for one membership annually and they've already paid for Lexington Country Club.
On Monday before the vote, Scott said Bowie and the member who sponsored his application would be notified by letter in a few days. In the meantime, Scott referred questions about Bowie's membership status to Bowie.
In an interview last week, Scott described Idle Hour's policy.
"We have no restrictions with respect to race, color, creed, national origin," he said. "Membership is made up of a diverse group of folks that enjoy one another's company.''
UK history professor Gerald Smith said Idle Hour's move means little to the African-American community because it means so little in terms of progress.
"Kentucky is so far behind the times that things like this have little resonance," Smith said. "We have a black president now; who cares if a black man is eligible to play golf at Idle Hour for $55,000?"
Still, John Johnson, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said the decision signals that society is changing.
"The fact is that race is not a major consideration in this decision, and we think that's progress," he said.