Fate of historic Black golf course remains uncertain

Photo by Paige Elliott

Stalemate pits Hiawatha’s cultural legacy against sustainable water management 

The future of the Hiawatha Golf Course is once again in flux as the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board failed to move forward with either the Board’s original plans or an alternative renovation concept by Black golf advocates at an April 6 meeting.

The alternative concept was proposed by the Bronze Foundation, a South Minneapolis-based nonprofit promoting equitable access to golf. The organization says Hiawatha, a public facility, was one of the first courses in Minneapolis—and the U.S.—to welcome African Americans.

Last year, parks officials proposed and voted down a master plan to improve water management by redesigning and reducing the golf course from 18 to nine holes.

The site was once the location of a lake and connected wetland, according to the master plan. The lake was dredged and the wetlands filled in the 1920s, with the golf course opening in the 1920s. Today, the master plan calls such wetland redevelopment “impossible and irresponsible.”

In 2014, heavy rains flooded the course for months, revealing that Minneapolis parks were pumping more than 240 gallons of groundwater into Lake Hiawatha to keep the site and the surrounding neighborhood dry. This was in violation of its DNR permit allowing pumping of 36.5 million gallons for irrigation purposes only. 

With further flooding in 2019, and more heavy rainfall expected in the future, the master plan would restore wetlands, aimed at creating a more sustainable system to address lake water quality and accessible recreation opportunities.

At Wednesday’s meeting, neighbors and environmental advocates—most of whom appeared to be White—pressed the parks board to accept the master plan. Golfers and Black Minneapolitans, meanwhile, urged the board to prioritize the preservation of the course’s cultural legacy as an initially segregated course.

“This is an important part of our history because it impacts housing, it impacts parks and recreation, and it impacts the lives of [people of] African descent…as well as others who settled in and around the Hiawatha Golf Course,” said LaJune Lange, retired judge and president of the International Leadership Institute. 

Though African American golfers could use the course, they were not allowed into the clubhouse until 1952, thanks to the work of elite golfer Solomon Hughes, Sr

A Hennepin History Museum article details the history of Black golfers in the Twin Cities, dating back to the 1931 founding of the Twin City Golf Club. It established the Minnesota Negro Open Golf Tournament, later renamed the Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Open, and attracted hundreds of golfers from across the country. For decades, it was held at Hiawatha Golf Course.

In hopes of preserving the course, advocates recently pushed to have the Cultural Landscape Foundation designate it as a Landslide site, a nationally significant cultural landscape that is threatened and at-risk.

Photo by Paige Elliott The Hiawatha Golf Course clubhouse was recently renamed for Black golfer Solomon Hughes, Sr.

At the April 6 meeting, the Bronze Foundation presented an alternative redesign concept with the help of Minneapolis-based O2 Design and a nationally practicing water engineer. The concept maintained 18 holes with water being redirected into creeks circling the lake.

Bronze Foundation President Darwin Dean said, “This team was put together so that we could solve the water issue, secure the cultural history, and save the park board and also the city of Minneapolis funding. We’d like to partner with the park board to solve these issues…and to help create a community for people, youth, and not just golfers,” Dean said.

He continued, “A long time ago, before many of us were even a thought, that golf course was used more as a park where people actually came, sat down, picnicked. South Minneapolis was redlined, and you had a large area for a minority population, so they welcomed that particular park. 

“So when golfers started playing there, it wasn’t just about golf. It was a community event that everyone in the community came, celebrated and enjoyed. We’d like to continue that legacy for youth in that community,” Dean said.

Commissioner Cathy Abene questioned the foundation’s planning team. The master plan document says the City’s engineers, landscape architects, and golf course architect determined that an 18-hole golf course was not possible. 

The foundation rebutted that they are not presenting a plan, but rather a concept based on their work with comparable projects.

Al Flowers, activist and one-time mayoral candidate, criticized the decision to revisit the master plan less than a year after the initial vote, with the board also now less diverse than before. There is currently only one Black or person of color.

“Our history is important. We’re dealing with the situation of Amir Locke, George Floyd…this is a historical site,” Flowers said.

Parks commissioners tied 4-4, with one commissioner absent, to not consider the master plan later this month.