How an ugly history inspired Eastside Golf’s latest Air Jordan collaboration — Andscape
Growing up on the Eastside of Atlanta, Olajuwon Ajanaku came to know and cherish the legacy of a man named Alfred “Tup” Holmes.
Ajanaku, who wanted to become a pro golfer, often heard stories about Holmes, who sued the city of Atlanta in 1955 for barring Black people from playing on public courses. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court and resulted in the desegregation of Atlanta’s courses. Ajanaku also discovered the significance of one of the most important moments in the history of the PGA.
“I was a teenager when I first found out that 1961 was the year the PGA lifted its ‘Caucasian-only clause,’ ” said Ajanaku, 34, the co-founder of the lifestyle clothing brand Eastside Golf. In 2019, Ajanaku launched Eastside to bring culture and comfort to a sport that’s long been unaccepting of people who look and dress like him and co-founder Earl Cooper.
In September, Ajanaku and Cooper commemorated that date with the release of the “Change. 1961” collection through their partnership with the Jordan Brand, which began in 2021. The collection features three limited-edition models of Air Jordan golf shoes, headlined by a rendition of Air Jordan 1s, designed in a fairway green, black and off-white colorway. “Change” is etched in gold on the side of each Jordan 1 shoe and is punctuated with a period.
“Obviously, this is a sensitive topic,” said Cooper, who grew up on the east side of Wilmington, Delaware, where, in high school, he became the first African American to be named all-state in golf. “But when we had the opportunity to put the message on a Jordan, it just felt right.”
Cooper and Ajanaku met at historically Black Morehouse College, where they played on the university’s Division II golf team and won the PGA’s 24th annual Minority Collegiate Golf Championship in 2010. Post-graduation, Cooper interned for the PGA, which led to a job in the organization as a club pro, an opportunity that’s historically been hard to come by for Black golfers.
“When you look at the statistics of Black golf professionals, it’s mind-blowing how low the number still is,” said Cooper, who’s been a teaching club pro at Detroit Golf Club and Wilmington Country Club since 2012. “Knowing that the number of Black people in golf hasn’t really grown much in the past 10-plus years since I joined the PGA, it’s become a personal passion to help change that reality. And, with Eastside’s business and platform, we want to continue to bring the issue of inclusion to the forefront.”
Though more Americans are playing golf in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the sport remains dominated by a white demographic. According to a study updated in July, only 9% of golf professionals in America are Black and 66% are white. Out of the 156-player field that competed in the US Open this past summer, not a single golfer was Black.
“Over time, I just heard so many negative stories about Black people and the PGA,” said Ajanaku, who initially launched Eastside to fund his childhood dream of playing on the PGA Tour. The brand quickly took on a larger purpose, especially after Cooper came on board with his experience working with the PGA. “People kept telling me, ‘Give golf time, and the sport will change,’ ” Ajanaku continued, “to the point I was tired of hearing it. I felt, if not now, then when?”
When Ajanaku and Cooper introduced Eastside apparel, they injected streetwear swag into the stylistically traditional sport. Eastside’s Swingman logo depicts a Black man swinging a golf club with a thick gold chain popping out of his shirt. The illustration was designed to resemble Ajanaku.
“I’ve been looked at very strangely when I have my polo open, and my chains are flying all over the place,” Ajanaku said. “I’ve heard, ‘He’s not dressed properly,’ and have had the course marshal come over to check my attire. I even got kicked off a golf course two years ago because I had on the wrong set of clothes.
“Unfortunately, me and Earl’s skin color screams, ‘Look at me!’ — that’s what it feels like every time we’re at a country club. So, we’re always on our p’s and q’s. Then, when someone sees us hit a golf ball, they don’t really have anything to say, because we play good golf and respect the game.”
Eastside caught the attention of the Jordan Brand, as the Nike division began expanding into golf apparel and footwear post-pandemic. Their debut collaboration — the “Be You” Eastside x Air Jordan 4 golf shoe — dropped in August 2021. The white, cement grey and gold rendition of the 1989 Air Jordan silhouette swaps out the Jordan Brand’s Jumpman logo for Eastside’s Swingman graphic, which is embroidered on the tongue of each sneaker. Also featured underneath the translucent soles of both shoes is a portrait of a Black golfer teeing off in front of a crowd of spectators. One of the men watching in the illustration was drawn to represent Ajanaku’s late father, Kwame.
The limited debut Air Jordan golf shoes from Eastside are now listed for as much as $15,000 a pair on resale sneaker platforms.
Eastside followed up with the “Out The Mud” collection, which dropped in November 2022, featuring four different Jordan silhouettes, including a low- and high-top Air Jordan 1, designed in a navy, burnt orange, white and gold colorway.
For its third Air Jordan collaboration, Eastside wanted to illuminate the PGA’s history of tainted treatment of Black golfers and pay tribute to the Black pioneers of the sport, such as Ajanaku’s hometown hero, Holmes, and, more notably, Charlie Sifford, who became the first African American to join the PGA Tour after the “Caucasian-only clause,” instituted in 1934, was removed from the organization’s bylaws in 1961.
“It’s important to note that, before the clause was lifted in 1961, you couldn’t be nonwhite and play on tour — and you also couldn’t be a nonwhite professional who, for example, worked inside the pro shop at a country club,” Cooper said. “Because the rule affected multiple facets of the sport, it was about shining light upon all the people who fought to create opportunities for us within the PGA.”
Initially, Ajanaku, who has led the design process of every sneaker Eastside has done with the Jordan Brand, wanted to name the collection “Banned. 1961.” For the headlining golf shoe, Ajanaku drew direct inspiration from the “Banned” Air Jordan 1 — the black and red colorway of NBA legend Michael Jordan’s first signature sneaker, which inspired a strategic Nike ad campaign after the NBA began fining Jordan for wearing the colors on his shoes. But when Ajanaku presented the idea, Cooper advised against it.
“The first time I told Earl that I wanted to call the collection ‘Banned,’ he looked at me crazy, like, ‘You sure?’ ” Ajanaku recalled. “So, we shifted to the word ‘Change,’ which is more positive and forward-looking. We also made the slogan of the collection, ‘In honor of those who paved the way.’ Because, whether you’re Black or white, history means a lot in golf. There were so many people who crawled so we could run, and we wanted to honor them by helping push the game forward.”
In advance of finalizing the rollout of Eastside’s latest Jordan Brand collection, Ajanaku and Cooper traveled with Nike executives to Frisco, Texas, where they delivered a presentation to members of the PGA and unveiled the sneakers, highlighting the pair of Air Jordan 1s adorned with the message “Change.”
“When the room saw the shoes for the first time, some faces turned red,” Ajanaku recalled. “But, showing the shoes to the PGA was a sigh of relief. It was a moment that wasn’t supposed to be comfortable because, through each shoe in the collection, we’re acknowledging the ugly past of golf and where the game still needs to go.
“At the end of the day, Eastside Golf is about ‘What do we want to see in golf?’ And in the past few years, the PGA has seen us. They’ve seen our shoes. They know we’re here.”
During the weekend following the collection’s release in September, Ajanaku and Cooper hosted its inaugural Eastside Golf Invitational in San Diego, a deliberate choice of location, given the city’s significance in golf history.
In 1952, Bill Spiller, one of the first African American pro golfers, qualified to play at the PGA’s San Diego Open but was deemed ineligible due to the “Caucasian-only clause” in the organization’s bylaws. Seeking positive publicity, San Diego Open sponsors invited former heavyweight boxing champion and avid golfer Joe Louis to play as an invited amateur. And though he accepted the invitation, becoming the first African American in history to compete in a PGA tournament, Louis didn’t hold back in his criticism of racism by the PGA.
“I want people to know what the PGA is,” Louis told The New York Times on Jan. 14, 1952. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by.”
There’s an iconic photo of Spiller, who sat in the first tee box with his golf bag as a statement of protest against being barred from playing in the tournament. Later, in 1952, Spiller and several other Black pros broke the PGA tournament color barrier after the organization allowed them to compete in the Phoenix Open, mainly due to the pressure Louis put on golf’s governing organization to change.
However, it took another nine years for the PGA to formally lift its ban on nonwhite players in 1961 — the year and moment that’s still inspiring two Black golfers to push for continued change in the game.