Notices sorted by graduation date.

February 2, 1933 – March 5, 2020

Golfer Merchant was trailblazer for black students at UVA

As both the first black graduate of UVA Law School and the first black member of the United States Golf Association’s Executive Committee, John Merchant (Law ’58) knew the steep cost of being a pioneer.

John F. Merchant Dan Addison

In his autobiography, A Journey Worth Taking: An Unpredictable Adventure, Merchant wrote: “What has been interesting to me is I have finally accepted the underlying loneliness that has been my constant companion.”

Merchant, who died March 5 at age 87, was a reluctant trailblazer at UVA, where there were few African Americans at the time.

“Most felt isolated, unwanted and quite often afraid to be in an environment where they did not feel fully accepted,” says Maurice Apprey, UVA’s dean of African-American Affairs and co-editor of the book The Key to the Door: Experiences of Early African-American Students at the University of Virginia.

It took Merchant decades to make peace with his time at UVA, as the school, in turn, paid homage to him, Apprey says. In 1987, Merchant founded the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund, which is run through the Alumni Association and provides scholarships to African American students.

When his daughter, Susan Merchant (Law ’94), took her law degree, he was the one to give the keynote address at the commencement.

“It validated my three years there, erased many negatives from my mind, and set a stage for more to come regarding diversity at UVA,” he wrote.

Merchant practiced law for five decades in his native Connecticut. When he took up golf while serving in the Navy after graduating from UVA, he was barred from playing at many clubs. He believed in the power of the game to build relationships, however. He once said he could not repay all it had given him.

Merchant paid back plenty. He joined the USGA Executive Committee in 1992 and founded and ran the Minority Golf Symposium, which brought together black golfers; tour pros; and executives from Nike, Titleist and other companies.

Merchant also represented Tiger Woods as he transitioned from amateur to pro.

Merchant could be a strong advocate. According to Golf Digest, at the USGA’s centennial dinner in 1995 he slammed his hand on the table and yelled, “It’s about time!” when the speaker acknowledged John Shippen as the first African American to play in the U.S. Open, in 1896.

“Basically, he was a very humble man,” Apprey says. “Even though he needed a hard exterior to survive.”

Merchant is survived by his daughter, his sister Barbara, and six nieces and nephews.

—Ed Miller