A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE: A Brief History of Black Chess Masters in America (1998)

Reproduced at The Chess Drum with written permission from Mr. Gregory Kearse
This article appeared in
Chess Life, July 1998 edition

eputations are not easy to come by in chess. Only a history of excellence and success over the board will propel a player into the limelight, push him into the upper regions of the elite and stardom. Two nationally recognized African-American players, Maurice Ashley and Emory Tate, have done exactly that for nearly two decades. Surprisingly, for a lot of chess players, other African-Americans chess players have mastered the game but perhaps get less attention nationally.

Many of the 86,000 United States Chess Federation (USCF) players know something about the history of the top players: Maurice Ashley in 1993 became the first African-American to be awarded the coveted title of International Master, and Emory Tate (who has two IM norms) had been the perennial U.S. Armed Forces Champion and the grassroots people’s choice for Grandmaster in training.

However, these two titans, along with numerous other black chess masters, constitute a large stable of highly distinguished mavens of the game. Coming to mind are Morris Giles (FM), Irvin Middleton (FM), Ron Simpson (SM), Willie Morrison (SM), Greg Acholonu (SM), Ron Buckmeyer (SM), Norm Rogers (FM), Steve Booth, and George Umezinwa, to name but a few.


Historically, there have been some 40 bona fide black chess masters. Further, there are many more black senior masters than most people realize. Most players, black or white do not even realize that back in the 1850s there was a formidable black problemist. He was an African-American by the name of Theophilus Thompson, who put together a book of chess problems (albeit not a very good one, to the taste of bookseller Fred Wilson). Copies of the book are rare.

On the forget-me-not list is K.K. Karanga, the young African-American genius (literally) who made it before trudging off to study at Yale. It is not clear whether it was he or Howard Daniels who became the youngest African-American to make U.S. master. But, let’s not get too far ahead of this fascinating story.

In 1963, America was on the verge of a cultural explosion that would touch our lives and alter its very social fabric. Even in the world of chess, with its then exclusive clubs and its odd assortment of esoteric warriors, a minor revolution had taken place. America produced its first black chess master. His name was Walt Harris, an unassuming, dedicated scientist who for some years worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol and a strong urban chess center.


As a matter of fact, one can claim the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area as the cradle of black chess in America, for over the next few years, some time during the middle phases of the U.S. incursion into the Vietnam conflict, Ken Clayton and his protégé, Frank Street, became chess masters, in 1965 and 1967, respectively.

Further, at one time, the Washington D.C. vicinity was the current or former home of masters: William Morrison, Ken Clayton, Barry Davis, Frank Street, Greg Acholonu, Emory Tate, Vincent Moore, Charles Green, Glenn Umstead, Charles Covington, Andre Surgeon, Tony Randolph, Walter Harris and Ms. Baraka Shabazz (more about her later).

When one looks at the other black masters spread out across the country, the contemporary list of masters is impressive. But it was not always this way, especially for this nation’s first black master, Harris, who now lives in the Bay area in California. Harris waxes with nostalgic with, “It was lonely when I came up.” He said that he was very pleased by Maurice Ashley’s success and hinted that at least he (Ashley) has other black masters who surround and support him. His sharp, clear voice tries to conceal both the pain and the pride of his accomplishment.


Incidentally, Clayton and Street are the only two African-Americans who have won the prestigious U.S. amateur title. While Clayton pretty much settled in suburban Washington, Street flew off to warmer climes of Berkeley in the 1960s to pursue a degree in higher mathematics and engineering. However, Street has returned to the D.C. area and is currently working out the calculus and physics that keep various satellites on course collecting data high above the planet Earth. About 1970, a quiet, good-looking young man living in New Jersey found the brass ring. He eventually became America’s first black FIDE Master. His name is Alan Williams, who has stopped playing tournament chess. Then a chain smoker, Alan was noted for his suave and sophisticated mannerisms and understanding of subtle chess positions.

Thus, the seeds were sown, The late ’70s and particularly the decade of the ’80s produced the largest number of black masters in history. In its wake, a slew of strong experts was also created.

International Arbiter Jerome Bibuld has compiled a comprehensive database of African-American experts and masters in this country, an impressive feat and important monument. Form that pool of experts, particularly during the mid-1980s, sprang a phenomenal number of black masters, many of them interestingly enough, working in computer technologies, math, and the applied sciences. So much for the various bizarre urban myths surrounding black men. This is not meant to sound caustic, but black kids have had positive role models long before Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.


In the book I am currently writing (Black Knights: The History of Black Chessmasters in America), I will include a profile of Baraka Shabazz even though she never officially made master. However, she is the only black female to have ever been rated expert by the USCF and thus deserves special recognition. She exploded on the scene in early ’80s as a gifted teenager playing 20-board simuls, but unfortunately faded from chess as the pressure of boys and the blistering social life of Washington pushed her deeper into other direction and interests. It is rumor in the chess corridors of Washington that Baraka can no longer stand the sight of a chessboard.

By the last decade’s standards, the 1990s has seen somewhat of a lapse in the production of black masters; however, on the horizon is a veritable array of true candidate masters (2100+) who are black. Many of these experts are under the tutelage of current masters. Yet, it’s not so much racial pride as it is an opportunity for many of these players to give back to the community which nurtured them.

My book explores in detail some of the social ramification of these friendships and relationships. Suffice it to say, however, that the chess community has traditionally been more enlightened than the larger society. The black community has always exalt edits black chessplayers, particularly those who have mastered the game.

In his chess prime, Ken Clayton would take on all challengers in addition to tutoring at the Benjamin Banneker Recreation Center, across the street from the historic campus of Howard University. Senior systems analyst and chess master, Charlie Greene, was one of the several fruits of Clayton’s labor of love. Maurice Ashley’s thematic tournaments for black masters was an instant success in 1994 in New York City.

Popular and seasoned chess master Norm “Pete” Rogers of Philadelphia has some insight into the thinking of blackmasters when he recently told me,” I want to do something constructive by exposing kids to chess. On my job (at the local post office), I run tournament. It’s difficulty, but I want to eventually run a chess camp for 200 kids.”

When asked what life lessons does chess give, Norm had this to say: “It teaches discipline, patience, how to consider your reaction before you react. Chess teaches to sit on your hands and not verbally reasons to the first thing that comes to your mind.”


Senior Master Gregory Acholonu (now on leave) teaches chess full-time to mainstream as well as underprivileged kids at the U.S. chess Center, located in the nation’s capital. Call Frank Street on the phone and he’ll drive over to your house to play you. Of course Emory Tate loves showing off his games, but in the process, he constantly talks about open files, pawn structure, waiting moves and tactical shots supporting strategic ideas. Willie Morrison (2501), one of the most affable masters around, will unselfishly takes the time to analyze your games.

What does it all mean? On a practical level, there are enough black masters nationally spread out from California to upstate New York, who take a special interest and pride in bringing along other African-American players into the mainstream. These men are heroes in the black community and are role models in glittering contrast to the stark madness or urban designer drugs and random violence.

The larger mainstream society is beginning to recognize the importance of chess in the education and salvation of our nation’s youth. Chess clubs and programs are springing up around the country, and at the vanguard are the kids whom we have dubbed the lost generation all that black chess masters have been doing, almost from the very beginning, is passing on a legacy of excellence to the inheritors of the throne!

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