GAHANNA, Ohio (WCMH) — It was a mystery to some, an oasis for others.
Sitting at the end of a long road in what was a once a rural community miles outside of Columbus sat a gem, a gathering place offered respite to some of the best and brightest in the Black community. Opening its doors in the 1920s, it was the first Black country club in the United States — and it was born out of a need for Black central Ohioans to have a place for community.
“It was a segregated community,” said Christy Evans, a member of the Gahanna Historical society. “We think about that in the south, but we don’t realize Columbus, Ohio was like that as well.”
Evans helped comb through the articles and a limited number of records to paint a picture of what once was a reprieve from the world behind a set of iron gates. She said it was segregation, an exclusion from every day aspects of life that led a group of civic minded men to come together and create something magical — somewhere safe.
“They were all successful doctors, dentist, attorneys, war veterans, but beyond their personal success, they were dedicated to service as well, and they want to elevate and celebrate their community as well,” said Evans.
Records are full of names that may not immediately ring a bell but are names that carried weight for the Black community in the 1920s and the generations that followed.
Those names focused on family life and civic engagement ultimately purchased 20 acres from a Black Gahanna resident and formed what is considered the first Black country club in the nation — the Big Walnut Country Club.
Like so many who spent time at the club, Reita Bynum Smith regularly made the trek from the city to rural Gahanna.
“I remember as an impressionable teenager, the dining room with the white table clothes looked very sophisticated,” Smith said. “What was that old saying? Top drawer? Black families wanted the same thing.”
Smith has many cherished memories at the club. Her first horseback ride was on Big Walnut’s sprawling land. But her most vivid memory, she said, is of winning the Miss Ohio State News Pageant in 1952.
Because of segregation, it became a necessity for us to be creative, in order to provide for our family like any other family,” Smith said.
The club served as a rural satellite of what was brewing miles down the road in the city of Columbus. The names and families prospering in communities like Bronzeville and on Long Street are also the ones who found themselves inside the walls of Big Walnut.
But the club’s ultimate demise is a bit of a mystery. Ernest Tate, who ran the club, died in 1955. Evans isn’t sure what happened after that — but she would like to learn.
For now, there remains just a marker indicating where the walls that sheltered decades of memories, gatherings, games and political rallies once stood.