Lighting up the Lanes Bowling: An African American Pastime

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By The HistoryMakers

Against the backdrop of the loud crashing of pins and popular music playing, everyone from children to church goers have found sport, laughter and fun at the bowling alley. With the simple goal of knocking over objects by rolling a ball, the game of bowling has been played since as early as 3200 B.C. in ancient Egypt. More certainly, we know bowling was popular in England by 1366, when King Edward III allegedly outlawed it to keep his troops focused on archery practice.[1]

Marathoner Anthony Reed described his early interest in bowling while growing up in St. Louis, Missouri: “St. Louis… was the bowling capital of the U.S…. they have the national bowlers hall of fame [International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame]… So I got heavily involved in bowling… I can remember learning how to bowl at a place called Ringside bowling alley [Ringside Bowling Lanes.]. And my instructor was a black gentleman whose name was Mr. Chisum.”[2] Joe Geeter, III, the 16th National President of the Montford Point Marine Association, recalled joining the bowling team in high school: “I took up bowling because my best friend… was a bowler… so I bowled recreation league and then when I got to high school, the chess coach asked me to bowl. I was on the chess team originally but they had to practice and I didn’t like practicing... Then Mr. Lakanata [ph.], who also was the bowling team captain, once he found out I wasn’t serious about chess… he asked me about bowling and I found out they didn’t have to practice. So I joined the bowling team.”[3] Investment banker Carla Harris started competing in fifth grade in Jacksonville, Florida: “My mother took me bowling, and then we found out that there was a black bowling league run by this woman named Claudezeal Alvin… she did a tremendous thing for our community because a lot of kids hadn’t been exposed to bowling, but she taught us how to bowl, she got us competitive… looking back, it never really hit me… many times we were the only black kids in those lanes… I stayed in Claudezeal’s league from fifth grade on through to my senior year in high school.”[4]

Louise Fulton, one of the first African American women to compete on the professional tour, and the first African American to win a professional bowling title upon winning the 1964 Princeton Open

The bowling alley was also a way for young people to make money. Former director of the Studio Museum in Harlem Ed Spriggs used his job at the bowling alley to contribute to his family: “I worked at the bowling alley… setting pins and I was really proud of that because… my little income was able to provide the lunch money for all of us (laughter).”[5] Broadcast executive George L. Miles, Jr. similarly recalled that at twelve years old, “my uncle introduced me to the bowling alley, setting pins… that was big bucks for me… one day I met this league… all night league and I was gonna work it all night. And I’m setting pins and it’s almost like two o’clock in the morning… all of a sudden I felt myself being lifted right out of the pit. I looked up, it was my father [George L. Miles, Sr.], (laughter) said, ‘Where in the hell have you been?’ I said, ‘Pop, I’m here working… trying to make some money…’ he said, ‘You know, you got no damn business out here this time of night, two o’clock in the morning, don’t know where you are and everything else…’ But I was trying to hustle, make some bucks.”[6] Civil rights lawyer Walter L. Gordon, Jr. (1908 – 2012) explained about a time period much earlier when he was growing up in California during World War I and German soldiers stationed nearby took a liking to him, and one asked, “’You want a job?’ I said, ‘Yes…’ He said you come Sunday. And the Germans would bowl on Sundays. So, I got there and I got to be the master of the bowling alley… nothing electric, you had to bend down and pick them [bowling pins] up and set them… and you better know how to do it fast… they’d be drunk as hell. That’s another reason they wanted me. They wanted me to take care of them and so forth.”[7]

Pin setter, Washington D.C., April 1943

For actress and singer Della Reese-Lett (1931 – 2017) on the other hand, the bowling alley was her first steady singing gig: “They were just beginning to have bowling allies with entertainment. And they opened one in Detroit to see how it would go. And I went to see about the job singing… cause I knew the musicians… this man and I had this conversation. I never mentioned singing… at the end of our conversation, he said, okay, be here at 8:00 o’clock… he would give me twenty-five dollars a week… So at 8:00 o’clock, I’m standing there waiting on time to sing. And the door opens and people come in the door. And he says to me, ‘What are you gonna do about those people?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna sing to ’em when you set ’em down…’ He said, I don’t need no singer, I need a hostess to sit the people down. I said, well, ‘I’m hired as a singer.’ He said, ‘set the people down and sing it while you’re sitting ’em down…’ he said he’d give me five dollars more. I said, ‘okay.’ And it turned out to be a wonderful thing… my tips were better than my salary.”[8]

Young Della Reese-Lett singing, c.1950s

The bowling alley was also a popular meeting place. Major General Alfred Flowers, the longest-serving airman in Air Force history, told the story of how he met his wife: “I was just back from Vietnam (laughs). And I saw this cute looking lady… named Ida Hill at the time… I was shy and didn’t have the courage to introduce myself to meet her, so I brokered a deal through my friend, who was outgoing and gregarious… I said, ‘Hey, man, you know, I sure would like to meet that lady.’ I say, ‘Why don’t you set something up at the bowling alley for us, and we’ll get two of them and two of us and we’ll go to the bowling alley to meet them, but make sure one of them is that one.’ (laughs). And he did… He set up a bowling event for us, and I didn’t know how to bowl and had no interest in bowling. But my wife today of forty-three years showed up there with her friend.”[9] Foreign ambassador Joseph Segars (1938 – 2014) also met his wife at a bowling alley while working as a teacher in Gary, Indiana: “She was a new teacher as well, recruited from Kentucky State [University, Frankfort, Kentucky]. We met in the bowling alley… she was introduced to me by some friends, lady friends who had gone to Cheyney [State University] with me and they were teaching together. And I was on the hunt for a date or girlfriend and they knew her and they thought they knew me… so they introduced us.”[10]

Couple bowling, c.1960s

The bowling alley was not immune to segregation and discrimination, though. Belva Davis, the first African American female newscaster in San Francisco, described her experiences while on the Berkeley High School bowling team in Berkeley, California: “What I didn’t know was that the Berkeley Bowl was a segregated place. So I joined the team and I would come down on… game day, and I’d bowl, and then I guess about two or three weeks into it, I decided to go at a time when the team wasn’t there… and I found out I couldn’t bowl there. Black people were not allowed to rent an alley… I was not going to give up on the bowling… So I would practice with canned goods in my driveway, and my teacher just happened to drive by one day… she asked me about it, and of course after complimenting me for finding this ingenious way to practice… she finally got to the root cause of it and she told the bowl that if I couldn’t practice–that Berkeley High could have no other activities at that bowling alley. She was going to pull the whole bowling program, so they changed their policy.”[11] Banker Ron Gault recalled discrimination at a bowling alley in Chicago, Illinois: “As we rolled in there, my friend from… Oklahoma, has gone ahead of me, he’s white. And I linger a moment to watch these guys shoot pool. And by the time I arrive, he’s got his shoes on. So, the manager/owner says ‘I can’t let you bowl here.’ I say, ‘Why?’ He says, ‘If you bowl here, these guys will tear this place up…’ we stormed out and left… and we filed a complaint with the Illinois Commission on Human Rights… But there was little… that transpired there.”[12]

Berkley Bowl, Berkley, California, c.1965

These instances of racism at the bowling alley could turn violent. Ralph Bernard Everett, former President and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., told the story of the Orangeburg Massacre that took place in his hometown in 1968: “That was an event that was started over a bowling alley called All Star Lanes [All Star Bowling Lanes; All Star Triangle Bowl, Orangeburg, South Carolina] that was owned by a fellow named Mr. Floyd [Harry Floyd]… he was determined that even though the civil rights bill was passed… no black folks were going to bowl at his facility. So, the students… at South Carolina State College mounted a protest where they would have… nightly marches down to his bowling alley. And on day three of this event, the National Guard [South Carolina National Guard] had been called out along with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Department… And the law officers said that someone from the crowd fired a shot, which was later determined not to be true. But… [they] opened fire on the students who were gathered at the front of the campus, ending up killing three students and wounding about twenty-nine. And one of those students who was killed that night was a high school classmate of mine [Delano Middleton]… there was an investigation done. The investigation concluded that the officers did not do anything wrong.[13]

Guards outside All Star Bowling, Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1968
Victims of the Orangeburg Massacre (left to right)- Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammond, Jr., and Henry Smith

African Americans also owned their own bowling alleys. Bank chairman and entrepreneur Jacoby Dickens (1931 – 2013) recalled in Chicago how he met his business partner the famous radio DJ Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie:I joined a [bowling] league and it was called Daddy-O’s Fun League… so I went into the league and bowled the first year and the next year they voted me as president of this league. And I really got interested in bowling and saw the revenue streams and all of the things that this would kick off and I stayed involved.”[14] Daddy-O Daylie (1920 – 2003) continued: “I had two leagues, Sunday morning men’s and Tuesday night mixed, and so Jacoby was the president of our Tuesday night league… we got a chance to buy the bowling lane [Bowling Starlite]… they wanted to put it up for sale… the two owners asked me if I could find them a buyer so I said ‘yeah, I’ll do it; will I get a commission?’ And he said ‘yeah…’ Jay and I went to have coffee, and we talked… so I mortgaged my house. Jay took out a mortgage on his, and I went back, and I said ‘I found you a buyer.’ They said ‘who?’ I said ‘me and Jay…’ And he said ‘you’ve got to be out your tree,’ because he was upset with me because he didn’t want to sell it to me… then I went to Washington [D.C.]… [to the] SBA [Small Business Administration]… we got the first kind of sizable loan. They were lending minorities ten thousand, fifteen thousand [dollars]… I went to spend about two weeks in Washington, got a nice little chunk, and came back, and that’s how we got it.”[15] Dickens then “purchased [Skyway Bowl, Chicago, Illinois] alone. And having worked at it, I knew everything about the bowling business. I didn’t know the behind the counter and I didn’t know the books… I went back to school and took some accounting classes… so I had a better understanding of the back side of the business as I call it. And–it just went on from there.”[16] He added, “Skyway Bowl… My daughter owns that now [in 1999] and runs it very successfully.”[17]

Jacoby Dickens with his daughter Karen (left), and grand-daughter, Michelle Mack (right), Skyway Bowl, Chicago, Illinois

Bowling has recently seen a decline. In fact, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell from 5,400 in 1998 to just over 3,200 in 2019.[18] Industry revenue has decreased at an annual rate of about 0.7% since

Bowler, c.1950s

2015, with a decline of 13.8% in 2020 alone, largely due to the pandemic.[19] With luck, perhaps the industry can recover once the pandemic ends, but in the meantime, our bowling alley memories remain.

Bowler, c.1950s

[1] “History of Bowling,” International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame, accessed September 21, 2020. https://www.bowlingmuseum.com/Visit/Education/History-of-Bowling

[2]Anthony Reed (The HistoryMakers A2013.027), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 28, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Anthony Reed describes his early interest in bowling.

[3]Joe Geeter, III (The HistoryMakers A2013.086), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 26, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Joe Geeter, III remembers joining the bowling team in high school.

[4]Carla Harris (The HistoryMakers A2006.097), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, July 22, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Carla Harris describes her experience in Claudezeal Alvin’s bowling league in Jacksonville, Florida.

[5]Ed Spriggs (The HistoryMakers A2011.024), interviewed by Denise Gines, April 21, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, Ed Spriggs remembers his early work experiences.

[6]George L. Miles, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2008.103), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 12, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, George L. Miles, Jr. recalls his early work experiences.

[7]Walter L. Gordon, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2008.071), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, April 3, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Walter L. Gordon, Jr. remembers being hired at a bowling alley.

[8]Della Reese-Lett (The HistoryMakers A2004.087), interviewed by Lorraine Toussaint, June 18, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Della Reese recounts her first steady singing job.

[9]Maj. Gen. Alfred Flowers (The HistoryMakers A2012.148), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 28, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Alfred Flowers describes how he met his wife, Ida Hill Flowers.

[10]Joseph Segars (The HistoryMakers A2004.124), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, August 11, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Joseph Segars reflects on his teaching career in Gary, Indiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[11]Belva Davis (The HistoryMakers A2002.033), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 27, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Belva Davis discusses influences during her youth.

[12]Ronald T. Gault (The HistoryMakers A2004.138), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 22, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 5, Ronald T. Gault remembers being discriminated against at a bowling alley in Chicago, Illinois.

[13]Ralph Bernard Everett (The HistoryMakers A2008.006), interviewed by Cheryl Butler, February 1, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Ralph Bernard Everett remembers the Orangeburg massacre.

[14]Jacoby Dickens (The HistoryMakers A1999.004), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 15, 1999, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Jacoby Dickens discusses his bowling enterprises in the late 1960s-1970s.

[15]Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie (The HistoryMakers A2001.021), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 29, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 4, Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie talks about buying a bowling alley with entrepreneur Jacoby Dickens.

[16]Jacoby Dickens (The HistoryMakers A1999.004), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 15, 1999, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Jacoby Dickens discusses his real estate and bowling alley investments.

[17]Jacoby Dickens (The HistoryMakers A1999.004), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 15, 1999, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Jacoby Dickens discusses his real estate and bowling alley investments.

[18] Brandon Gaille. “32 Staggering Bowling Industry Trends,” Brandon Gaille Small Business & Marketing Advice, June 20, 2016, accessed September 16, 2020. https://brandongaille.com/32-staggering-bowling-industry-trends/

[19] “Bowling Centers Industry in the US – Market Research Report,” IBIS World, August 29, 2020, accessed September 16, 2020. https://www.ibisworld.com/united-states/market-research-reports/bowling-centers-industry/

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