The ongoing battle over preservation of an African American historical site
The Hiawatha Golf Course in South Minneapolis has received a National Register of Historic Places designation by the National Park Service, which was approved on April 27, meaning the golf course now joins the list of historic preservation sites across the country. However, the fight to keep Hiawatha as it currently is—an 18-hole course—continues.
Last March, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) believed that the site was National Register-eligible and helped with the application process. In a statement, TCLF President and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum said, “The National Register designation of the Hiawatha Golf Course, an action we first called for on March 1, 2022, reaffirms the cultural and historic significance of the site. The designation reminds us that African American history is American history, and the recognition includes important information about Hiawatha that we believe is essential to any decision-making process about the course’s future.”
Beginning in the early 1930s, Hiawatha has been a gathering place for African Americans in the city for recreation and golf, at a time when they were discriminated against and often excluded from public spaces.
Last September, after three previous attempts, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), finally approved its proposed “Hiawatha Master Plan” by a vote of 6-3. The Park Board plan includes reducing the public golf course from 18 holes to nine holes, improves water management and addresses long standing flooding issues. The flooding problems reached a critical point in June 2014, when significant rainfall flooded the Hiawatha golf course—described as a “100-year flood”—and forced its closing, until it was fully reopened in 2016.
MPRB Commissioner Becka Thompson’s motion last July, to separate the water issues from the course redesign was rejected. In addition, a rift between Black community members, who are mostly against the “Hiawatha Master Plan,” and Native Americans, who support it because they want the land returned to its ancestral roots, became apparent during public-comment meetings.
When asked last week by the MSR, about Hiawatha’s new historic status, MPRB President Meg Forney said, “Hiawatha golf course’s National Register listing does not impede the Minneapolis Park Board’s implementation of the Hiawatha Plan but requires the MPRB to consult with the State of Minnesota regarding future work.”
The Minneapolis-based Bronze Foundation, which commissioned the National Register nomination, paid more than $18,000 for a study to look into water issues, while maintaining the golf course and paying for needed improvements. Darwin Dean, president of the Bronze Foundation, says its water management plan would address the water problem. His organization also contacted engineers and devised a water management plan it calls “Alternative 6” that would address the water problems, including groundwater intrusion into adjacent home basements, improve Lake Hiawatha water quality, as well as preserve the current 18-hole course.
Last week, Dean told the MSR that the Board must now follow Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires public meetings and must show that no “adverse effects” will arise if the MPRB reduces the historic site to nine holes, in addition to any other proposed changes.
“The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board could have placed [Hiawatha] on the National Register itself, but they failed to do that,” Dean pointed out. “The majority of people who showed up at the Park Board meetings were against the master plan,” recalled Dean.
In March, the Metropolitan Council also approved the Park Board’s Hiawatha Master Plan. Under state law, the Met Council must review long-range plans for regional parks, and if approved, then regional funding can be sought. However, according to its website, “Golfing is not considered an eligible regional activity and therefore not eligible for regional funding.”
That said, Dean noted that the Park Board may have a hard time implementing its plan unless they work with those who are opposed to it, especially raising the necessary funds. “They are seeking $65 million dollars today. However, with inflation, in five to eight years that amount could be as high as $90 million.”
Dean says that their next step is to raise the community awareness of what will happen to the Hiawatha golf course if the Park Board doesn’t reverse course with its master plan.
“It is on the National Register,” he concluded. “The public becomes stewards of this property and because we’re stewards that means we have to do the right thing. [The Park Board] is not doing justice to this community in insisting on destroying a cultural and historical golf course.”
Correction: This story was updated with a quote from Darwin Dean clarifying that the projected cost of the Park Board’s Hiawatha plan is $90 million, not $90 billion as originally reported. Robin Smother, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) said the estimated cost for the Hiawatha plan is $43 million. Also, the Park Board vote on the Hiawatha Master Plan was 6-3, in favor, not 4-3, as reported.
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