The history and uncertain future of the Hiawatha golf course

by | Oct 18, 2021 | Golf Courses

Courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

When Solomon Hughes Sr. was dying In 1987, when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at Methodist Hospital, he had a request for his daughter: Take me to the Hiawatha Golf Course. So she drove him to the course in southeast Minneapolis where Hughes, one of Minnesota’s top golfers, had played countless rounds (twice # 8) and given other lessons. Hughes walked slowly across the grounds and found calm between the fairways.

This is the story another of his daughters, Shirley Hughes, told members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in July before they voted on the fate of the famous golf course. The course has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually over the past decade due to declining usage (although an increase in rounds played during the pandemic grossed nearly $ 250,000 in 2020 and expected to raise $ 300,000 in 2021). Created over marshland and downstream from the Minnehaha watershed, the Hiawatha course flooded in 2014 when record rains paralyzed the course for months and the second nine through 2016. The park board estimated the resulting repairs and lost revenue at $ 4 million.

In order to avoid a similar natural and financial catastrophe, the park board has developed a master plan over the past five years “to achieve a flood-resistant construction method”. The $ 43 million proposal diverted drainage to Lake Hiawatha and added a redesigned common room with a restaurant, a friendly pollinator space, wetlands, a dog deck, bike paths, and cross-country skiing trails with artificial snow in the winter. But there was a catch: the 18-hole course would be reduced to nine holes.

Shirley Hughes articulated the primary opposition to the plan when she told MRPB commissioners that reducing the number of holes would diminish the stature of the course and degrade the legacy of black golfers like her father, for whom the Hiawatha golf course has become something special was and remains. Place.

Hiawatha story

Inspired by the popularity of golf and the success of the Wirth Golf Course, which opened in 1916 as Glenwood with sand greens and expanded to 18 holes in 1919, park manager Theodore Wirth convinced the park board to develop a golf course in the south of the city by purchasing the swampy one Landes around Rice Lake. The developers dredged over a million cubic feet of mud (which created Lake Hiawatha) to fill the course’s fairways. Hiawatha was the fifth public golf course operated by the Park Board (alongside Wirth, Francis A. Gross, Meadowbrook and Columbia) when it opened as a nine-hole course in 1934. The following year it was expanded to 18 holes.

While the city’s other urban courses lost money during the Depression, Hiawatha remained profitable. It quickly became popular with local golfers, including those in the Black community like Solomon Hughes, for its location and character.

Born in 1908 and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, Hughes learned the game by playing for white players at the local country club. He learned well, developed a sweet swing, and played 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 hosted the country’s most important tournaments, had a “Caucasians only” policy. Hughes won the UGA’s National Negro Open at the age of 26. He befriended heavyweight champ Joe Louis, an avid golfer, and gave lessons to another boxing champ, Sugar Ray Robinson. In 1943, Hughes and his family moved to Minneapolis in hopes of getting a job as a professional golfer in the north. However, he discovered that the Twin Cities were de facto fueled by latent prejudices.

Racial alliances and redlining had crammed blacks into neighborhoods in North Minneapolis and its near south side. Some restaurants and churches denied them entry. Access to public swimming pools was restricted – as were the University of Minnesota dormitories and the balconies of movie theaters. Doctors feared that treating black patients would stigmatize them as “black doctors”.

Private and public clubs didn’t want a black pro, so Hughes took a job as a Pullman porter on the Great Northern Railroad to support his growing family, while also giving private golf lessons at Hiawatha, the golf course closest to his Powderhorn home was.

“The bronze”

Times were tough for black golfers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, but the game retained its popularity with them. It seems like a close community. In the golf gossip column he wrote for the Minneapolis spokesman, Jimmy Lee seemed to know all of his black teammates by name, commenting on the new set of clubs, someone else’s bet to crack 100, friends from out of town and one Minneapolis pastor who occasionally plays 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 urban courses.

The Hiawatha Golf Course beats in the heart of this community. In 1938, the Twin City Golf Association hosted the area’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 objected to the use of the word “negro”. This tournament – now known simply as “Bronze” – found its home in Hiawatha in 1968, where it flourished. During its peak from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, the bronze attracted up to 300 participants and some of the top talent from across the country.

While black golfers were allowed to play on all of the urban courses in the area, they were not allowed to join the private golf clubs of each course. That meant they could only eat for members in the clubhouses or use the changing rooms. Exclusion from the clubs also meant that black golfers could not achieve an official handicap, a requirement for participating in PGA tournaments. In 1951, the Twin City Golf Association, which had 75 members at the time, applied for admission to the private golf clubs of its five urban golf courses, whose membership ranged from 64 in Columbia to 203 in Wirth. The Board’s Committee on Playgrounds and Entertainment has taken on the matter.

When the presidents of private golf clubs refused to accept black members, the committee chairman Ed Haislet beat them up for using “communist” delaying tactics and “not approaching the problem like real Americans”. After six months of tussling with the clubs, the committee recommended – recognizing that it is “an elected body with responsibility for the operation of public recreational facilities for all people and not tolerating discriminatory practices or special privileges” – stricter oversight the private golf clubs on the urban courses and their integration.

However, no one seems to know – neither the Park Board historian, nor the leading historian for Black Golf in the Twin Cities, nor Solomon Hughes’ daughter – how the Park Board responded to that recommendation. However, they seem to agree that Hughes was inducted into the Hiawatha clubhouse along with his brother in 1952. (Wirth and other clubhouses followed suit, but not until the 1960s.) That he was such a good golfer, but people wanted to ban him, ”says Shirley Hughes.

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

The vote

At its meeting on July 21, 2021, the park board unanimously voted to rename the Hiawatha clubhouse in honor of Solomon Hughes Sr. but could not agree on the master plan. LaTrisha Vetaw refused as she didn’t want to erase history by reducing the course from 18 to nine holes and telling her commissioners, “I can’t be the black woman who sits on this podium and says, ‘Solomon Hughes and his Children don’t care, ‘and all the hundreds, maybe thousands of blacks who have approached me about this, don’t matter.

The board finally voted 5: 4 against the redesign and maintained the status quo as an 18-hole course and groundwater basin. Despite the drought this summer, the course’s maintenance crew is well on its way to pumping more than 400 million gallons of groundwater out of 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 its position, but for now the future of the course remains in the balance.

Opponents of reducing the number of holes on the course, which is still very popular with black golfers, cheered both parkboard votes. Ten days later, the Hiawatha Golf Course hosted the bronze edition in 2021 and drove a virtual victory lap over 18 holes. “This is one of the most varied golf courses you will find in the Twin Cities region,” says Darwin Dean, who has held the bronze medal community since 2012. “