Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Twenty-five years ago, the exclusionary reputation of a Knoxville country club led to a furor when the University of Tennessee feared that its first African-American basketball coach would be rejected based on race. Today, a membership in that club by the state’s new attorney general has been met with barely a shrug.

Herbert Slatery, who previously served as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legal counsel, on his application to become the state’s top attorney listed his membership in Cherokee Country Club. But he responded “not applicable” to a question about whether he ever belonged to a club which limited membership based on race or gender.

The Cherokee Country Club admitted its first black member in what was then its 95-year history in in 2002. It came 13 years after its lack of black members became the subject of intense scrutiny when UT hired Wade Houston in 1989.

Then-UT President Lamar Alexander _ a former Republican governor now seeking a third term in the U.S. Senate _ asked then-football coach Johnny Majors and athletic director Doug Dickey to resign their university-paid memberships in the all-white club.

“The university cannot be a party to any membership of any organization that even raises the possibility that a white coach can be treated one way and a black coach another,” Alexander said at the time.

The club at the time stressed that Houston had not been denied because he had not formally applied, though membership had been considered a perk for top UT athletics officials. Cherokee also had no written policy based on race, though officials acknowledged at the time it had had no black members.

“Cherokee was just blatant back in the 1980s,” said Joe Armstrong, an African-American state representative from Knoxville. “But hopefully that’s just part of their history and not their future.”

Barbara Hatton, the former president of historically black Knoxville College, became the club’s first African-American member in 2002 after an anonymous donor paid her entrance fee and dues. Messages left with Cherokee’s general manager Tuesday morning seeking information about the current level of minority or female members were not immediately returned.

Slatery’s application did not say when he joined the club.

“I am currently a nonresident, nonvoting member,” Slatery said in an email. “And I do not know of a club policy that discriminated against people based on race or gender during the time I have been a member.”

Slatery was scheduled to be sworn in to an eight-year term as attorney general on Wednesday.

Armstrong, who was a heavy critic of Cherokee after the 1989 coaching hire, said he has known Slatery since he worked with Bill Haslam’s mayoral administration in Knoxville, which Armstrong said included a strong emphasis on diversity.

Haslam is also a former Cherokee member, though he left it before running for mayor in 2003. Haslam recently denied any political calculus behind leaving.

“We didn’t use it, it was that simple,” Haslam said. “We didn’t use it. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

A longtime dearth of black or female members at the Belle Meade Country Club in suburban Nashville has become a liability for political and judicial aspirants. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist resigned from the club before running for office in 1994, saying he quit because of the impression membership left with voters. He rejoined after retiring from the Senate.

And a panel of federal judges said in 2011 that a bankruptcy judge’s membership in the club violated the judiciary’s code of ethics because it never had a woman or a black with membership privileges that included voting and holding office.
The Belle Meade Country Club granted full membership to a woman and an African-American for the first time in 2012.