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Eoline Thornton on the golf course in the 1950s.
In the 1940s and 50s, few African American women embraced tennis and golf. Los Angeles native Eoline Corita Thornton loved the game and broke many color barriers while pursuing her passion.
Thornton, who lived in the Crenshaw area, passed away on June 14 at the age of 95, leaving a legacy of courage and talent that helped to open local golf courses to women of color.
The youngest of five daughters, Thornton was born in 1917 to Alex and Janie Jackson who had migrated from Mobile, AL, to Los Angeles a year earlier. She was an engaging and intelligent child that enjoyed learning and discovering new things. Under the tutelage of her mother, a teacher, she excelled in her studies and graduated from Manuel Arts High School at 15 years old.
Her daughter, Diana Thornton, recalled, “At that time, she was too poor to attend college, so she took night classes while working during the day.”
Eoline married James (Spot) Thornton, Sr., in 1937 and it was a beautiful union that lasted 57 years until his passing in 1994.
Thornton’s attraction to sports began with playing paddleball, then she moved to tennis, said Diana, who added, “She was mentored by Hall of Famer Pancho Gonzalez and with her left handed stroke, she quickly became a top amateur player. She and her sister-in-law, Eleese Thornton, ruled the local courts in the early 1940s.”
In 1947, Thornton took up golf and discovered that she excelled in the game. Her incredible talent led to her becoming the first African American in the Long Beach Women’s Golf Club. She continued to compete over the next decade, going up against the top Black players in the United States Golf Association including the legendary Ann Gregory. Her efforts paid off when Thornton won the USGA national championship in 1951.
Thornton was active in the Vernondale (now Vernoncrest) Women’s Golf Club established in 1947 to promote the sport to women of color. She also influenced Althea Gibson to transition from tennis to golf. In addition to golf, Thornton enjoyed traveling and played on courses from Africa to China.
When it came to employment, Diana shared, “My mother had an interesting and varied work history, from the bingo halls in Santa Monica to driving a truck on the Alaska pipeline. She retired from Hollywood Park Racetrack as a pari-mutual clerk.” She was also successful in real estate, purchasing homes in L.A. and the Bahamas.
Eoline is remembered by relatives “as a force to be reckoned with,” said her granddaughter, Staci. “The words ‘no’ and ‘can’t’ were not in her vocabulary. But, she was generous to a fault and helped everyone she could. She lived an amazing 95 years and blessed everyone who knew her.”
Her husband, James, Sr., and son, James, Jr, preceded Thornton in death. She leaves to cherish her memory her daughter, Diana; grandchildren, Staci and Chad Thornton; nieces, Judy Cooper, Pat Talbert, Lynelle George; special friend, Ida King, and a host of relatives and friends.
A Celebration of Life service will be held on July 21 at her granddaughter’s residence. For information, call (323) 242-2020.