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Slighted couple give up on yacht club


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000

TREASURE ISLAND -- Manit Sukhasam and his wife Vanida were looking for a spot to celebrate her newly acquired American citizenship.

They ended up poolside at the Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club, where Sukhasam had been a member for more than two years. They didn't stay long.

From across the pool, a member of the club's board of directors shouted questions that made the couple uneasy: Did they belong there? Were they members? What was their membership number?

"It didn't hurt me, but it hurt my wife," said Sukhasam, who was born in Thailand but has lived in the United States for 30 years and served in the U.S. Army. "She asked me if it was because I'm dark-skinned or have long hair. She didn't feel right to be there."

Sukhasam resigned his membership shortly after the incident. The club's commodore, J. Richard Rahter, said the director who confronted Sukhasam by the pool was not speaking for the club.

"I don't think this incident had anything to do with the fact that they may be minorities," said Rahter, who said he has played tennis at the club with Sukhasam and called the former member to apologize. "I don't want the club to get a bad rap by this because this was is in no way condoned by the club."

The club, which had been trying to crack down on illegal users of its private pool, now has retooled its policy toward dealing with potential trespassers, Rahter said. He asked directors at a recent board meeting to allow staff to handle such situations.

The exclusivity of private clubs -- for golfing, dining, yachting or playing tennis -- has relaxed since the days when many clubs required prospective members to submit photos with their applications, presumably so the membership could check the applicant's race and gender.

These days clubs are accused of more subtle forms of racism, such as shunning minority members or enforcing rules against them that are not as strictly enforced against other members.

The stake through the heart of organized bigotry at such clubs came 10 years ago, when the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., host of a Professional Golf Association Championship, revealed it was not open to African-Americans -- unless they were caddies or service workers.

Within days, public pressure forced the Alabama club to admit its first black member, and the PGA announced that it would hold tournaments only at clubs with open membership policies. Dozens of previously all-white clubs across the country opened their doors to black members.

"It seems as so goes Birmingham, so goes the nation," the Rev. Abraham Woods, then president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said when Shoal Creek -- and dozens of other all-white clubs across the country -- admitted their first black members in 1990.

Much has changed in 10 years. The Lakewood Country Club, for example, which had no black members when the Shoal Creek controversy occurred, now has several minority members and even hosts the annual National Negro College Fund golf tournament.

"We have made -- I don't know if it's an effort, but we have been conscientious," said Ken DeMott, who has been general manager at Lakewood for about 18 months. "In the past, clubs have been very exclusive, and we consider ourselves a private club, but we look at a membership application as an opportunity, not as who they are."

Yet racism is still more structured at some private clubs. Florida law allows clubs with fewer than 400 members to exclude anyone it chooses, and some exercise the right. The Indian Creek Country Club in Miami-Dade County, for instance, recently came under fire because it has no black members and only a handful of Jewish members.

In Massachusetts, the Haverhill Golf and Country Club recently lost a court battle to a group of women who claimed the club's prime tee times went to men.

The Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club, meanwhile, has been considered progressive among private clubs. It has had several female commodores and was, in fact, the first private club in Pinellas to have a woman at its helm.

Leaders of the club say Sukhasam's situation was a unique fluke, not indicative of attitudes at the club. "I don't think it was racially motivated," said Joe Meyer, general manager at the Treasure Island club. "He was approved for membership, so obviously if they had approved him for membership, there shouldn't have been a problem."

Memberships at the club cost between $1,750 and $2,500, depending upon the type of membership, in addition to monthly dues.

In the club's July 2000 newsletter, Meyer cautioned members not "to be offended if (lifeguards) come and ask for your name and member number."

The pool is surrounded by condominiums, Meyer said, and the club tries to protect its members from condo residents who might try to use the pool without having a membership.

Sukhasam, a real estate agent and property manager who also goes by his American name, Nik Morrison, said he was bothered that the club did not take the situation more seriously, and by the board director's approach.

"I talked to the personnel people, and they just nonchalantly laughed it off," he said. "I got irate because if I wasn't a member, he should have just come up and shook my hand and asked me."

* * *

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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