A long history of `us' keeping `them' out

Exclusivity: For decades, city clubs have thrived on not allowing certain people to join.

July 10, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

When H. Mebane Turner joined the old-line Maryland Club in 1961, its ranks included only white men. African-Americans and Jews were not among those invited to be members.

Times have changed at the Eager Street establishment. In the ensuing years, members found it "appropriate" to welcome minorities into the fold of the businessmen's club, said Turner, the retired president of the University of Baltimore.

"They still don't take ladies, I'm afraid, except as guests," he said.

In Maryland, private clubs with exclusive memberships still exist, although their influence might be waning. For people so inclined, acceptance into an elite club was once enough to prove arrival on the Baltimore society scene. Only those from the right families who knew the right people could gain entrance into the world behind these closed doors.

One of the most elite clubs, the Elkridge Club, made headlines recently after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. held a fund-raiser there. Elkridge doesn't have any black members, and some criticized Ehrlich for staging a function at a place where Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele wouldn't be welcomed to join.

But Elkridge isn't the only club that restricts its membership. A state program gives tax breaks to country clubs that promise not to discriminate, but a Department of Legislative Analysis report from 2002 found that only 29 of the state's roughly 50 country clubs agreed to participate. More recent numbers were not immediately available.

As an English aristocrat, the Duke of Bedford, once said, "There's no point in being in, if you can't keep others out."

In most major cities across the country, there are clubs - pool clubs and tennis clubs, golf clubs and social clubs - that are exclusive to certain well-heeled men. Some still exclude Jews. Some won't take African-Americans. Many still keep out women - except during certain events. None will take members who can't pony up the initiation fees that can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Membership restrictions remain legal under Maryland's public accommodations law, which contains an exemption that permits private clubs to exclude women, Jews, blacks and other minority groups if its members so desire, according to Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who has litigated country club discrimination issues.

Augusta National, the renowned Georgia golf course that is home to the Masters tournament, famously refuses to admit women into its ranks.

In 1990, a newspaper learned there were no black members at the Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham, where the PGA Championship was about to be held. Several sponsors threatened to pull out. Shoal Creek scrambled to invite a black member and the tournament went on.

"It's one of the things that is disappearing in our society but hasn't disappeared completely," said Walter Sondheim Jr., 96, a longtime Baltimore civic leader.

Years ago, Baltimore society was rigid in its makeup, ruled by those whose names were printed in the social register and the blue book. Outsiders were not readily welcomed. You couldn't even join the Junior League unless you knew someone who would stand by you before the admissions committee.

The Sun celebrated it all in its Society pages (which lasted until the early 1980s). In a daily society column, there was talk of who was invited to which dinner parties or who was welcoming which guests from out of town. On Sundays, there were the brides - Page One brides were from the most prominent and socially pure families. Page Two included those a rung or two down the social ladder - perhaps even a Jewish bride could make the page.

Sylvia Badger, who would go on to spend 20 years in the newspaper business covering society for the News-American and The Sun, recalls asking, in the 1960s, that a Junior League committee be photographed. She was told it would be done only if one woman in the picture could be traced to the social register or the blue book.

Badger also remembers attending a cocktail party at the Maryland Club in the 1960s, one where wives of members were invited inside for the first time. Soon it became clear why members had decided to keep the place a "no girls allowed" zone.

"One woman said, `This place needs a good decorator,'" Badger recalled hearing as they eyed the animal heads mounted on the wall. "You could see old members thinking, `Get them out of here.'"

She said she isn't really bothered by the Elkridge Club's lack of diversity.

"I think Elkridge has a right to be a private club if it wants to be," she said. "Michael Steele's family isn't a member. Neither is Bob Ehrlich's. Neither am I.

"I have a problem with it all being about black and white. It's just plain snobbery and that's OK."

People simply feel more comfortable with people who are like them, social observers say.

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