The History and Uncertain Future of Hiawatha Golf Course

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Courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

As Solomon Hughes Sr. lay dying suffering from multiple myeloma at the Methodist hospital in 1987, he had a request for his daughter: to take me to the Hiawatha golf course. So she took him to the Southeast Minneapolis Course where Hughes, one of Minnesota’s top golfers, had played countless rounds (twice as No. 8) and taught others. Hughes walked slowly along the field and found peace in the middle of the fairways.

That’s the story another of his daughters, Shirley Hughes, told members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in July before voting on the fate of the legendary golf course. The course has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year over the past decade due to declining usage (although an increase in the number of rounds played during the pandemic brought in nearly $ 250,000 in 2020 and a projection of $ 300,000 in 2021). Laid out over swamps and downstream from the Minnehaha watershed, the Hiawatha course was inundated in 2014 when record rainfall closed the course for months and the last nine until 2016. The park council estimated that the subsequent repairs and loss of revenue cost $ 4 million.

Wanting to avert a similar natural and financial disaster, the park council has developed a master plan over the past five years “to achieve flood-resilient design.” The $ 43 million proposal redirected drainage to Lake Hiawatha and added a redeveloped community space with a restaurant, a pollinator friendly space, wetlands, a dog patio, bike paths, and ski trails. background with artificial snow in winter. But there was a catch: the 18-hole course would be reduced to nine holes.

Shirley Hughes voiced major opposition to the plan when she told MRPB commissioners that reducing the number of holes would reduce the stature of the course and denigrate the legacy of black golfers like her father for whom the Hiawatha Golf Course had become. – and stay – a place.

History of Hiawatha

Inspired by the popularity of golf and the success of the Wirth Golf Course, which opened as Glenwood in 1916 with sandy greens and expanded to 18 holes in 1919, Parks Superintendent Theodore Wirth has convinced the park council to develop a golf course on the south side of town by purchasing the swamp land around Rice Lake. The developers dredged over a million cubic meters of sludge (which created Lake Hiawatha) to fill the fairways of the course. Hiawatha became the fifth public golf course to be operated by the park council (along with Wirth, Francis A. Gross, Meadowbrook and Columbia) when it opened as a nine-hole course in 1934. The year next, it was extended to 18 holes. .

While the city’s other municipal courts lost money during the Depression, Hiawatha remained profitable. It had quickly become popular for its location and character among local golfers, including those from the black community, like Solomon Hughes.

Born in 1908 and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, Hughes learned the game as a caddy for white players at the local country club. He learned well, developing a smooth swing and playing professionally on the “chitlin circuit” in tournaments sponsored by the United Golf Association. The UGA was founded in the 1920s for black professional golfers because the Professional Golf Association, which organized the major tournaments in the country, had a “Caucasians only” policy. Hughes, at 26, won the UGA National Negro Open. He befriended heavyweight champion Joe Louis, an avid golfer, and gave lessons to fellow boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson. Hoping to land a professional golfing job in the North, Hughes moved his family to Minneapolis in 1943. But he discovered that de facto segregation, spurred by latent prejudices, was sweeping the Twin Cities.

Racial alliances and redlining had surrounded blacks in neighborhoods north of Minneapolis and its south side. Some restaurants and churches have refused them entry. Public pools restricted access, as did University of Minnesota dorms and movie theater balconies. Doctors feared that treating black patients would stigmatize them as “black doctors.”

Private and public clubs didn’t want a black golf professional, so Hughes took a job as a Pullman porter for the Great Northern Railroad to support his growing family and gave private golf lessons in Hiawatha, the course closest to his house in Powderhorn.

“The bronze”

Times were tough for black golfers in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but the game retained its popularity among them. It seems to have been a tight community. In the golf gossip column he wrote for the Minneapolis spokesperson, Jimmy Lee seemed to know the names of all his fellow black golfers, commenting on his new set of clubs, another’s bet to beat 100, friends from out of town and a pastor from Minneapolis occasionally playing a round. . Golf legend Jimmie Slemmons founded the Twin City Golf Association for local black golfers because they were not allowed to join golf clubs on municipal courses.

The Hiawatha Golf Course beats at the heart of this community. In 1938, the Twin City Golf Association hosted the region’s first major black tournament: the UGA’s Central States Golf Tournament in Hiawatha. The following year, Slemmons started the Minnesota Negro Open Golf Tournament, renamed the Minnesota Bronze Amateur Golf Tournament in 1954, after the NAACP and other groups opposed the use of the word “nigger.” This tournament, known today simply as the “Bronze”, found its place in Hiawatha in 1968, where it flourished. At its peak in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, the Bronze drew up to 300 entrants and some of the best talent from across the country.

While black golfers were permitted to play on all municipal courses in the area, they were not permitted to become members of the private golf clubs hosted by each course. This meant they weren’t allowed to eat in member-only clubs or use the changing rooms. The exclusion of clubs also meant that black golfers were unable to obtain an official handicap, a prerequisite for participating in PGA tournaments. So in 1951, the Twin City Golf Association, which had 75 members at the time, asked the park council for admission to private golf clubs on its five municipal courses, which had membership numbers ranging from 64 in Columbia to 203 in Wirth. The council’s playground and entertainment committee has looked into the matter.

When the presidents of the private golf clubs refused to admit black members, the chairman of the committee, Ed Haislet, lambasted them for using “communist” blocking tactics and “not facing the problem like real Americans. “. After six months of wrangling with the clubs, the committee – recognizing that it was “an elected body charged with the responsibility of operating public recreation facilities for all and that no discriminatory practices or special privileges should be tolerated” – recommended stricter monitoring of the private golf clubs on municipal courses and their integration.

However, no one seems to know – neither the park council historian, nor the foremost historian of black golf in the Twin Cities, nor Solomon Hughes’ daughter – how the park council acted on this recommendation. They seem to agree, however, that Hughes, along with his brother, was admitted to the Hiawatha clubhouse in 1952. (Wirth and other course clubs followed suit, but not until the 1960s.) “He was outraged that he was such a good golfer that people wanted to ban him, ”says Shirley Hughes.

That same year, after twice denying him entry, the PGA finally allowed Hughes and another black golfer to compete in the St. Paul Open at Keller Golf Course.

The vote

At its July 21, 2021 meeting, the park’s board of directors voted unanimously to rename the Hiawatha clubhouse in honor of Solomon Hughes Sr. But they couldn’t agree on the master plan. LaTrisha Vetaw objected, not wanting to erase history by reducing the course from 18 to nine holes, telling her fellow stewards: It doesn’t matter, “and all those hundreds, maybe thousands of black people who got to me. have contacted about it do not matter. “

The board ultimately voted 5-4 against the redesign, maintaining the status quo as an 18-hole course and groundwater pool. Even with this summer’s drought, the course maintenance crew is set to pump over 400 million gallons of groundwater from the course just to keep it dry. With four commissioners not running for re-election (including three who voted against the master plan), the new board could change their position, but for now, the course’s future remains in limbo.

Opponents of reducing the number of holes on the course, which remains very popular with black golfers, applauded the two votes of the park’s board of directors. Ten days later, the Hiawatha golf course hosted the 2021 Bronze edition, achieving a virtual 18-hole victory lap. “This is one of the most diverse golf courses you will find in the Twin Cities area,” says Darwin Dean, who has led Bronze since 2012. “Turning it into something less than what you see today ‘hui is a crime against that. community. “


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