Lovers of the sport found ways to prevail over racism
Bowling has long been a social pastime bringing people together in friendly and organized competition. This recreational sport also has a long history maintained in the American Bowling Congress and the International Bowling Congress. However, historically White-dominated organizations effectively locked Blacks out during the days of Jim Crow.
But that didn’t stop Black bowlers from excelling in the sport. Since at least 1939, they created their own ways to network, have a good time, and, of course, challenge each other in match games. This is how the Twin Cities Bowlers Guild (TCBG), the state’s first Black bowling guild, got its start.
The TCBG began in the late 1950s with a group of casual Sunday afternoon bowlers who enjoyed competing against friends at similar skill levels. The group soon played against a visiting Milwaukee-based team, first in the Twin Cities and then in Milwaukee for a return match.
Founding members Fred Lee and Jack Adams knew that in order for such out-of-town matches to be successful over time, the member groups would need to be formally structured. Lee drafted the concept and Adam presented a draft plan to what would become the TCBG’s founding members.
In 1959, they reviewed and approved the plan, creating a governing body with rules, regulations and officers. The Guild even created its own “Bowler’s Prayer,” which they recited prior to every tournament and monthly meeting. Written by founding member Loretta Moore, the members used the prayer as way to demonstrate their church roots.
Eight years later, three other guilds from Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo. partnered with the Twin Cities in 1966 to form the Central States Bowling Guild (CSBG), the country’s first chartered guild. The CSBG is now in seven cities, including Milwaukee, Detroit, Des Moines, and Quad Cities, Ill.
Despite creating their own guilds, members still faced discrimination when it came to finding venues in which to stay during tournaments. Whether in the South or up North, conditions were the same for Black folks in public spaces.
“In the ‘50s, we didn’t have the luxury of being welcome in some cities,” noted Gregory Owens, current TCBG president. So, on weekends they would share buses, rides and homes as they traveled throughout the Midwest for matches.
Racism did not prevent guild celebrations, either. “We always had a big banquet [on] Saturday night with bragging rights and awarding trophies,” said Owens who has been a TCBG member for the past 38 years.
The festivities still take place each year, with CSBG members participating in three to five tournaments in various host cities. “Right before Labor Day, all seven cities get together for the big event. Everyone is there,” said Owens.
The large membership has been known to generate sizeable revenue for local businesses. Owens recalled an event recently hosted in a Twin Cities hotel. “We had the whole hotel, which was a quarter of a million dollars for that weekend,” he said.
Though many are long-time members, guild members range in age from 20 to 90+. “We now have younger people in their 20s and 30s who love to bowl and love to travel and compete,” said Owens. “They really do it well.”
The competitions have even led to some members being entered in the National Bowling Hall of Fame for getting all strikes and scoring 300 points in 30 to 40 games. “There is money involved, such as jackpot awards, and…adults having a good time.”
For those looking to get in on the fun, joining is fairly easy. “It’s a matter of contacting us,” said Owens. “We go over what the goal is…give you information, [and request] a minimal joining fee.” Dues are $25 a month and applicants are voted in by the organization.
Owens noted that the guilds also maintain community involvement with fundraisers for food shelves, encouraging youth involvement in bowling, and even offering an academic scholarships program.
Their camaraderie has helped initiate life-long friendships as well. “I go and see people I’ve known for 30 years,” said Owens.
“It’s a great time bowling with people you can call a friend and, in some cases, family. We provide a nice venue for great bowling, socializing, a formal dinner to recognize the efforts of everyone, and a memorial service to remember our fellow friends who have passed on, but got us to where we are 50+ years later.”
That, he said, is the most rewarding part. “It’s more than a bowling club,” said Owens. “If we didn’t have a good time, we wouldn’t exist.”
For more information, go to www.centralstatesbowling.org.