John Shippen was the first black person to play professional golf. Shippen, who was half black and Indian, lived on the reservation with others in the Shinnecock Hills. He was originally hired to help clear out the space for the new golf course and, before long, was giving lessons to the white players. In one summer, Shippen had made $15 after giving lessons. He had learned to play the game from Scotsman Willie Dunn. As Dunn’s new caddie with golf skills, 16-year-old Shippen was soon invited to play in the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
The white players tried to boycott the event upon learning that Shippen was black, but he had the backing of then USGA President Theodore Havermeyer. In the 1896 U.S. Open, Shippen ended with a final round of 81 and a 36-hole total of 159, taking fifth place out of 35 players and won $10. He was not only the first black player, but he was the first American-born professional golfer to enter the U.S. Open Championship. Shippen would continue to play in four additional competitions, in 1899, 1900, 1902 and 1913.
Shippen continued his game on the east coast, and from 1913 to 1915, he served as private instructor for the wealthiest clients. His client list included steel magnate Henry C. Frick, James Cromwell and former New Jersey Governer J.S. Freylinghuysen. From 1918 to 1920, Shippen worked the greens in Southampton. He later became co-owner of a course he designed in Laurel, Maryland.
As more racism ensued and Jim Crow laws took over the golf clubs and the PGA, Shippen’s professional game turned to the United Golfers Association (UGA), an African American golfers association. He retired as the greens keeper and head pro at Shady Rest Golf and Country Club.
Pro golfer and pioneer, John Shippen, passed away in a nursing home on May 15, 1968 at age 89. It would be some time later when a gravestone was erected on the grounds of the Rosedale Cemetery in Linden, New Jersey. The memorial efforts were led by Thurman P. Simmons, chairman of the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation.