As the PGA Championship begins, a look at the history of slavery and golf along South Carolina’s coast

Kiawah Island once maintained a bustling plantation economy based on slave labor

On Thursday, the 103rd PGA Championship will begin on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Twenty miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, Kiawah Island is situated between Folly Island to the northeast and Seabrook Island to the southwest. Located in Charleston County, Kiawah is separated from Folly by the Stono River and from Seabrook by the Kiawah River. An expanse of marsh separates the island from Johns Island. A causeway joins the mainland with Kiawah Island. There are seven golf courses here, including the Ocean Course, the Pete Dye masterpiece that opened in 1991 on a narrow 2½-mile wide beachfront with ocean views on one side and vast saltwater marshes on the other.

With its scenic courses and luxurious oceanside villas, it may be difficult to imagine that Kiawah Island once maintained a bustling plantation economy based on slave labor. Since Kiawah was an island not as well suited to rice cultivation as other coastal islands, farmers first planted indigo in the mid-18th century, and by the early 1800s, the island was divided into three large Sea Island, cotton plantations with hundreds of slaves.

The only physical evidence left of that period is the Vanderhorst mansion, the last remaining historic building on Kiawah Island. Built by the Vanderhorst family in 1801, the three-story house was the main residence of a plantation that once extended across the whole island — nearly 3,000 acres. From the mid-1700s to 1951, when they sold the island to a developer, the Vanderhorst family was a continuous presence on the island. The mansion, or the “Big House,” as the slaves called the master’s house, was the headquarters of the operation.

Signage displayed on the 15th tee during a practice round before the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course on May 18 in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A history resides at Kiawah and the low country that reveals the intimate bonds of slavery with the early development of golf in America. To play golf along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia is to confront the Atlantic slave trade and the legacy of slavery in America. Charleston, long known as the birthplace of golf in America, owes that distinction largely to its role as perhaps the most significant slave port in North America. Up and down the coast from Sea Island to Hilton Head to Charleston to the Grand Strand there are golf courses littered with the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow and the ghosts of Black people who were uprooted from their land through partition sales and property taxes. There are slave cemeteries and the ruins of slave cabins and sick houses that share spaces with golfers and leisure. Here on these golf courses, Black people once carried out lives that were full of work, cooking, singing, family times, church life and homegoing celebrations.

“Life must be lived amidst that which was made before,” geographer Donald Meinig said in his essay The Beholding Eye. “Every landscape is an accumulation. The past endures.” What endures at golf resorts such as Kiawah is an accumulation of the landscapes of a past that we cannot forget. Lauret Savoy, an Earth historian of mixed racial heritage, has said that “each of us is a landscape inscribed by memory and by loss” and that to “live in this country is to be marked by its still-unfolding and too-often unvoiced history.”

The roots of this relationship between race and golf in America began with two of Charleston’s most prominent slave traders, David and John Deas, two brothers who built a very profitable enterprise marketing and selling slaves to local slave owners. The Deas brothers created perhaps the most famous advertisement of slaves in the history of Colonial America. The broadside, dated Aug. 3, 1769, advertises a cargo of Ninety-Four Prime, Healthy Negroes. The 39 men, 15 boys, 24 women and 16 girls had just arrived aboard the Brigantine Dembia from Sierra Leone. In the same year, the Deas brothers posted more advertisements in the South Carolina Gazette: Two hundred & Sixty Prime Negroes … directly from Angola. A Cargo of One hundred and Fourteen Healthy Prime Neoroes (sic). Forty Remarkably Fine Negro Women: Just Arrived from the Coast of Guiney.

The Deas name was on slave handbills all over the city. Their busy season ran between March and June, when 17 vessels delivered slaves directly to Charleston from West Africa. In the early 1700s, the demand for slaves in the low country had grown with the increase in rice cultivation, which was labor-intensive but ideal for the semitropical climate. The bulk of the work involved clearing and preparing the land. African slaves from the “Rice Coast” — the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal to Sierra Leone to Liberia — fetched the highest prices. It is estimated that during the Atlantic slave trade around 260,000 African slaves on 882 ships came through the Charleston Harbor, and that after the abolition of the Atlantic trade in 1808, Charleston was the primary slave auction market in the United States until the end of the Civil War. When South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede from the Union in December 1860, it was home to 400,000 slaves, about 10% of the total slave population in the country.

In August 1743, David Deas, then 21 years old, received one of the first documented shipments of golf equipment in the American colonies — 432 balls and 96 clubs sent from the Port Leith to Charleston. The son of a Leith shipmaster, Deas had grown up playing the game on the Leith Links, a five-hole course, where in 1744 the first rules of golf were established. In 1738, Deas had immigrated to Charleston like scores of other Scottish men in search of wealth and opportunities in the booming mercantile profession attached to the Atlantic slave trade. Deas brought goods into Charleston from Leith in bulk and sold them to dry goods stores and grocers. At a time when most golfers only carried five to seven clubs, his order was enough to equip at least a dozen players. Deas’ customers were Charleston’s elite planter class, who had made their fortunes cultivating rice with the labor of enslaved Africans. Rice had made South Carolina one of the richest English colonies and Charleston home to the wealthiest planters in North America.

There is no record of how Deas’ customers used the golf supplies in the immediate years after they arrived from Leith, but the South Carolina Golf Club was formed in 1786, and the game was played at an open park in Charleston in a place the club members called Harleston Green. The balls were made of boiled feathers stuffed into stitched bull’s hide. Slaves served as “finders” of the balls and yelled “fore” to warn park visitors of flying golf balls. Golfers used a “play club,” the equivalent of a driver, to hit shots from the teeing areas and a utility iron for short shots. Established by Scottish merchants, the South Carolina Golf Club is considered by golf historians to be the first golf club in America.

Yet the link to the game of golf and slavery go back to West Africa, where slave merchants built a two-hole golf course in the 1770s on a slave fort called Bunce Island off the coast of Sierra Leone. The course was built for merchants and traders who needed a leisure pursuit while their ships were loaded with human cargo for the treacherous middle passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Built on a site where some 13,000 slaves were shipped mainly to low country South Carolina, the golf course is believed to be the first one built on the continent of Africa. There white men dressed in white Indian cotton used wooden clubs to hit balls the size of tennis balls into holes the size of a man’s hat crown. The slave caddies wore tartan clothes.

This little resort, built amid slave pens and human trafficking, was one of the most popular destinations for traders on the coast. “We amused ourselves for an hour or two in the cool of the afternoon in playing at Goff,” remembered Henry Smeathman, an English naturalist who visited the fort in the early 1770s. Before supper, he said, they would play whist and backgammon. The menu would include roast ape, antelope, boar and Madeira wine.

After the Atlantic slave trade was abolished by the British Parliament in 1807, Bunce Island fell into a steady decline and by the 1840s was essentially abandoned. What survives today are remnants of old watchtowers, a fortification for eight cannons, and tombstones of traders. Locals and historians have referred to it as “the place where history sleeps” and a “slave trade ghost town.”

The Old Slave Mart is a building that once housed an antebellum slave auction gallery. Built in 1859, the building is believed to be the last extant slave auction facility in South Carolina. Photographed on March 28, 2019.

Paul Harris/Getty Images

At the Kiawah Island Resort, there are no signs of slave pens and human trafficking, but on a short trip into Charleston, curious students of American slavery can find a tour of the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street, where slaves were sold in a public auction. There is a parking lot now where slaves were kept in barracoons until the auction was complete. At Kiawah, the imagery of slavery is less stark, but in a real sense, the best players in the world who have assembled here for one of the game’s four major championships will confront aspects of this past in ways that could impact their performance.

Shortly before the 2012 PGA Championship, the Ocean Course was reseeded with seashore paspalum, a warm-season, salt-tolerant turfgrass that requires less water and fewer chemicals to maintain tournament-quality conditions. The grass develops into a lush, emerald green canopy with a fine texture that is suited for a fast, tightly mowed fairway, but leafy enough for perfect lies.

In 1993, Ronny Duncan, a University of Georgia agronomist, began looking for a paspalum that would thrive in the southeast United States. He searched all over the world for a pattern for its migration. It grew on the Sea Islands, but not on the Gulf Coast or New Orleans. Genetic analysis revealed that seashore paspalum had evolved originally in South Africa and spread with the slave trade to West Africa, South America and the United States. Duncan had a hunch that the native African grass had been used as bedding in slave ships and that as the ships came into southern U.S. ports, the bedding would be discarded on the shore, leaving the grass to regrow and establish on the banks in coastal cities. Yet to prove it, he needed to visit ports where slave ships had docked. At Sullivan’s Island, near the entrance to the Charleston Harbor, Duncan found the grass while walking on the beach. When slave ships reached Charleston, port physicians would inspect the crew and the slaves for infection. If anyone was suspected of having a contagious disease, they would be quarantined and isolated aboard ships or in pest houses until they were deemed fit for slave auctions in Charleston. In 1707, the first public pest house was built on Sullivan’s Island.

Seashore paspalum is a cousin of Bermuda grass, another very popular turf used on golf courses. Bermuda grass originated in East Africa, where African tribes used it for both medical and religious purposes, but it takes its name from the island where locals call it crab grass for its deep root system. Introduced as a crop in Savannah, Georgia, in 1751 by a planter, Bermuda grass was used as forage and pasturage and likely also was brought over as bedding on slave ships. The grass was installed at the Ocean Course when it opened for the 1991 Ryder Cup, but over time it could not withstand the waves and ocean spray that carried salt water onto the golf course and bled into the irrigation system.

At the Ocean Course, there are no prevailing winds. To accommodate this, the Dyes built one nine that runs west for westerly winds and the other nine runs east for easterly winds. Golfers may play one nine with the wind at their back and the other with it in their faces. Eight-club differences are possible on holes depending on the direction and strength of the wind. In the second round of the 2012 PGA Championship at the Ocean Course, the wind blew 30 mph off the Atlantic and 41 players failed to break 80, making it the hardest round of any PGA Championship with a 78.11 scoring average.

When sailing ships dominated the waterways during the Atlantic slave trade, ship captains shaped their particular trade routes by the winds and the currents. There were two slave trading routes. In the North Atlantic route, ships sailed north of the equator in a clockwise direction and took advantage of the westerlies from North America, the Caribbean and the northeast trade winds off the coast of West Africa and directed toward the Americas. In the middle passage, where Charleston was located, most ships followed a triangular route between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The first leg involved an outward voyage from a slave-trading headquarters in London or Liverpool to the West African coast, where manufactured goods would be exchanged for slaves. On the second leg, vessels would cross the Atlantic to the Americas with slaves in the middle passage. The third leg was the return trip to the home port. For most of the year, the trade winds — the prevailing easterly winds that circle the Earth near the equator — made it difficult for slave ships to get away from the African coast. Captains were often forced to sail a circuitous return route until they could pick up the northeasterly trade winds. To avoid the currents, the vessels sailed windward, away from Africa with the southeasterly trade winds that allowed ships to bypass the West Indies and sail directly to the United States, increasing the survival rate and preserving the health of the slaves.

I believe that everything is connected and nothing in America connects us more than the legacy of slavery. The foundation of American capitalism and the wealth that blooms at Kiawah was planted around Charleston with slavery. That golf was perhaps an unintended beneficiary of this eagerness to bring slavery into the American colonies should not be lost on any of us who love the game, because it is our history.

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.