After years of sporadic controversy over its 90-year history of whites-only segregation, Forest Lake Country Club has admitted its first African-American member, according to multiple members familiar with the matter.
The history-making new member is Ashleigh Wilson, who is based in Columbia with a national law firm, Bowman and Brooke, which has offices across the country. Its legal speciality is defending automobile and drug companies in product liability cases.
“I’m very pleased to be a member of the Forest Lake Club,” she said in a brief statement. “I enjoy playing tennis and its other amenities and have many friends at Forest Lake. I’ve been welcomed warmly there.”
Wilson, 31, grew up in Columbia, graduated from Columbia High School, and is a 2008 graduate of Wofford College and a 2011 graduate of Wake Forest Law School. She serves on the boards of the S.C. Ethics Commission and Special Olympics South Carolina.
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Over the years, the club – famous for keeping a low profile – has been the recipient of successive waves of negative publicity for not having any African-American members.
The most recent came in January when Democrats and others criticized Gov. Henry McMaster, who ascended to the governor’s post when Nikki Haley became United Nations ambassador, for belonging to a whites-only club. McMaster said he would not give up his club membership.
In 2014, when McMaster ran for the lieutenant governor’s post, Democratic opponent Bakari Sellers made McMaster’s membership in the club a campaign issue and unsuccessfully challenged McMaster to quit the club.
Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history and director of the center for civil rights history and research at the University of South Carolina, said, “Here we are, 53 years after the civil rights bill was passed, and this institution has finally caught up with history. It’s been an ongoing struggle to try to crack the doors of this private club.”
Donaldson added, “The timing could not be more ironic, as we see a resurgence of and identification with white supremacist rhetoric across the country. We are reminded that although you have had these significant civil rights milestones, there is still a culture and strong sentiment that we have to constantly fight against.
“Maybe Forest Lake Country Club can help lead the way in the ongoing struggle,” Donaldson said.
People who know Wilson said she is a good addition to any group.
“She’s a very bright, very talented young lady,” said Steve Hamm, executive director of the S.C. Ethics Commission, on whose board Wilson sits.
Joel Smith, a managing partner with Bowman and Brooke who works with Wilson, said she “is a leader. Her leadership skills are extraordinary for a young professional.”
Smith said, “I think it takes a little courage to do something like this. I’m really proud of her for having the courage to do it.”
Forest Lake president George Gibbes, when asked by a reporter, on Friday afternoon released a statement that said in part, “As a private club, we have a limited number of members. We do not release or publish their names, but our membership is a diverse group of business and professional leaders, from government and the private sector.
“We do not discriminate by race, religion or creed. New members are sponsored by existing members, and once new members have been approved by the Membership Committee, they are placed on a waiting list until vacancies occur,” Gibbes’ statement said.
“While respecting the privacy of our Club, we can say we have members of various religious and ethnic groups. African-American families have been approved for membership and existing members have offered to sponsor others,” Gibbes said.
Donaldson said Wilson’s admission is “a turn of the page of history.” Asked if he meant that in a good way, Donaldson replied, “We shall see. Having a member of the club does not change the culture, necessarily.”