RICHMOND -- There was a time when the Country Club of Virginia was more likely to have golfers wearing polka-dot parkas on the 18th green in August than to have James Howard Cane as a member.
But times change. Cane and his family a couple of months ago became the first black members of CCV -- for eight decades one of the reigning institutions of the capital city's elite -- and scarcely a whisper was heard.
Club officials said they had no policy prohibiting blacks before the Canes joined; it merely happened there were none. Cane, a physician, said he doesn't consider his groundbreaking status to be that big a deal.
Never mind all that: A cultural milestone has been passed, and it was done by a fellow who was willing to pay a $25,000 initiation fee even though he has no plans to use any of the country club's three golf courses. Turns out he doesn't play, although he said he may take it up someday.
"My children are very active, and I wanted a place that was family oriented," said Cane, whose wife, Dianne L. Cane, also is a physician. "The food is excellent."
Did he give any thought to the racial barrier he was breaking down? "The thought passed through my mind, but that wasn't the main reason for doing it," he said.
In a city that is respectful, to say the least, of money, heritage and status, the Country Club of Virginia has played a special role for the Richmond establishment. It is the playground of the city's so-called Main Street community, the bankers, lawyers and corporate leaders who run the part of Richmond's civic life that doesn't revolve around politics and the state Capitol.
Club officials said they don't comment on who holds membership. But, according to members, those who belong include Bruce and Floyd Gottwald, leaders of the Fortune 500 Ethyl Corp., which has headquarters here. Lawyer Robert H. Patterson Jr., who defended the Virginia Military Institute against the U.S. Justice Department in its battle to preserve its all-male status, is a member, as are John Stewart Bryan III, publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and U.S. Attorney Richard Cullen.
Some club members said privately that there has been a movement afoot for several years -- led by younger, more progressive members without family ties to the old Richmond establishment -- to include black members. The effort lagged, those members said, because of the difficulty in recruiting black members who wanted to be first and who would pay the high initiation fee and the $3,000 annual dues.
The pressure for many clubs increased markedly two years ago, when the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham was selected as host for the Professional Golfers' Association championship, even though it had no black members.
A controversy erupted, the club changed its practices, and the PGA implemented rules saying its tour events were not to be held at clubs that excluded minorities. Several clubs have changed their rules since then. A survey by The Washington Post two years ago of 47 private country clubs in the Washington area found none that admitted to discriminatory practices. But a half-dozen said they had no black or Hispanic members.
Political pressure has integrated some clubs. Last winter, according to legislators, the General Assembly held up the reappointment of a judge who belonged to the Norfolk Yacht Club, which had no black members. After receiving assurances that the club was seeking black members, the legislature approved the judge for another term.
"If there's a country club that doesn't have any minorities, we ask the judge to resign, or we wait on reappointment," said Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), who heads the House committee overseeing judicial candidates.
With his soft-spoken manner and professional credentials, Cane won't be particularly exceptional at CCV in ways other than his race. A graduate of the University of Maryland and Howard University, he grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Two brothers who stayed in Maryland, Honnis Cane Jr., of Worcester County, and Rudolph Cane, of Wicomico County, were elected the first black county commissioners in those areas.
Although James Cane said he doesn't play golf or tennis, if he did he could take his pick from three well-manicured courses at CCV, one of them by famous designer Donald Ross, and 20 courts.
Some people have stayed on the waiting list for CCV for several years, but Cane said he was on for only six months, which club officials said is the minimum under the bylaws.
Cane "was treated the same as any other applicant," said Clifford A. Cutchins IV, who heads the membership committee. "We're looking for people who are compatible with the interests of our members."
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), the nation's first black elected governor, was offered an honorary membership, but didn't respond, Cutchins said.
Cane said he hasn't felt like a racial trailblazer at CCV. "The people," he said, "have been very gracious and kind."