Remembering America’s First Black Country Club

By Michael Hill

“What we’re doing here is we’re bringing all this history back,” said Thurman Simmons, house caretaker at Scotch Hills Country Club.

The history of America’s first black country club. In 1921, a group of prominent black businessmen bought this narrow, nine-hole golf course and country club. Shady Rest Country Club was the result of segregated America barring African-Americans and other non-whites from playing at public courses and at private country clubs.

Historians say in its heyday, Shady Rest Country Club attracted a who’s who of African-American life and culture: Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Althea Gibson, W.E.B. Du Bois and countless others.

“This was the mecca of African-American entertainment on the East Coast,” Simmons said.

Simmons says in a twist, Shady Rest owner Henry Willis did not allow whites in, so “They stood outside on the street and they would listen to the music. They would listen to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and all these famous bands that came here. This was the place back in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. This was it on the East Coast.”

Shady Rest was home to what Simmons and others call the nation’s first American-born professional golfer, John Shippen. He kept the grounds here and created and sold his own golf clubs after a pro career. Simmons showed NJTV News where Shippen lived on the top floor for three decades.

In 1995, a college professor produced a 30-minute documentary about Shady Rest entitled “A Place For Us.”

The restoration of Shady Rest almost didn’t happen. A previous Scotch Plains mayor was eager to demolish it. But, Simmons and others saved it from the wrecking ball to have it undergo a major renovation and modernization for lots of uses.

Simmons says he’s collected a lot of Shady Rest — now Scotch Hills Country Club — memorabilia and plans to have it displayed here. He’s the chairman of the John Shippen Golf Foundation and founded the John Shippen Youth Golf Academy, determined to give life to the links and legacy of Shady Rest.

“You could feel something when you’re supposed to do something,” Simmons said.