The History and Uncertain Future of Hiawatha Golf Course

The southeast Minneapolis course remains a special place in the Black community amid contentious development plans

Courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

As Solomon Hughes Sr. lay dying of multiple myeloma at Methodist Hospital in 1987, he had one request for his daughter: Take me to Hiawatha Golf Course. So she drove him to the course in southeast Minneapolis where Hughes, one of Minnesota’s best golfers, had played countless rounds (twice acing No. 8) and given lessons to others. Hughes walked slowly along the grounds and found peace amid the fairways.

That’s the story another one of his daughters, Shirley Hughes, told members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in July before they voted on the fate of the storied golf course. The course has been losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually over the past decade because of declining use (although a surge in rounds played during the pandemic netted almost $250,000 in 2020 and a projected $300,000 in 2021). Laid out over swampland and downstream from the Minnehaha watershed, the Hiawatha course flooded in 2014 when record rainfall shut down the course for months and the back nine until 2016. The park board estimated the ensuing repairs and lost revenue cost $4 million.

Wanting to avoid a similar natural and financial disaster, the park board developed a master plan over the last five years “to achieve a flood-resilient design.” The $43 million proposal redirected drainage into Lake Hiawatha and added a revamped community space with a restaurant, friendly space for pollinators, wetlands, a dog patio, bike trails, and cross-country ski trails with manufactured snow in the wintertime. 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 the MRPB commissioners reducing the number of holes would diminish the stature of the course and disparage the legacy of Black golfers like her father for whom Hiawatha Golf Course had become—and remains—a special place.

Hiawatha History

Inspired by the popularity of golf and the success of Wirth Golf Course, which opened as Glenwood in 1916 with sand greens and expanded to 18 holes in 1919, superintendent of parks Theodore Wirth convinced the park board to develop a golf course on the city’s south side by purchasing the swampy land around Rice Lake. Developers dredged more than a million cubic yards of sludge (which created Lake Hiawatha) to fill in the course fairways. Hiawatha became the fifth public golf course to be operated by the park board (along with Wirth, Francis A. Gross, Meadowbrook, and Columbia) when it opened as a nine-hole course in 1934. The following year, it expanded to 18 holes.

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

Born in 1908 and raised in Gadsden, Alabama, Hughes learned the game by caddying for white players at the local country club. He learned well, developing a sweet 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 ran the country’s major tournaments, had a “Caucasians only” policy. Hughes, at age 26, won the UGA’s National Negro Open. He befriended heavyweight champion Joe Louis, an avid golfer, and gave lessons to another boxing champ, Sugar Ray Robinson. With hopes of landing a position as a golf pro in the North, Hughes moved his family to Minneapolis in 1943. But he discovered that de facto segregation, spurred by latent prejudice, pervaded the Twin Cities.

Racial covenants and redlining had corralled Blacks into neighborhoods in North Minneapolis and its near south side. Some restaurants and churches refused them entry. Public pools restricted access—as did University of Minnesota dormitories and movie theater balconies. Physicians feared treating Black patients would stigmatize them as a “Black doctor.”

Private and public clubs did not want a Black golf pro, so Hughes took a job as a Pullman porter for the Great Northern Railroad to support his growing family and gave private golf lessons on the side at Hiawatha, the course closest to his Powderhorn home.

“The Bronze”

Times were tough for Black golfers through the ’30s, ’40s, and into the ’50s, but the game retained its popularity among them. It appears to have been a tight community. In the golf gossip column he wrote for the Minneapolis Spokesman, Jimmy Lee seemed to know all of his fellow Black golfers by name, commenting on one’s new set of clubs, another’s wager to break 100, friends visiting from out of town, and a Minneapolis pastor playing an occasional round. Golf legend Jimmie Slemmons founded the Twin City Golf Association for local Black golfers since they were not allowed to join the golf clubs at municipal courses.

Hiawatha Golf Course beat at the heart of this community. In 1938, the Twin City Golf Association hosted the first major Black tournament in the area: the UGA’s Central States Golf Tournament at 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.” That tournament—today known simply as “the Bronze”—found its home at Hiawatha in 1968, where it thrived. During its peak from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, the Bronze drew up to 300 entrants and some of the top talent from around the country.

While Black golfers were allowed to play on all of the area’s municipal courses, they were not allowed membership in the private golf clubs hosted by each course. That meant they weren’t allowed inside the members-only clubhouses to eat or use the locker room facilities. Exclusion from the clubs also meant Black golfers weren’t able to obtain an official handicap, a prerequisite to competing in PGA tournaments. So in 1951, the Twin City Golf Association—which had 75 members at the time—petitioned the park board to be admitted into the private golf clubs at its five municipal courses, which ranged in members from 64 at Columbia to 203 at Wirth. The board’s Playgrounds and Entertainment Committee took up the matter.

When the presidents of the private golf clubs resisted admitting Black members, committee chair Ed Haislet blasted them for using “communist” stalling tactics and “failing to face the problem like real Americans.” After six months of wrangling with the clubs, the committee—acknowledging it was “an elected body charged with the responsibility of operating public recreation facilities for all the people and that no discriminating practices or special privileges should be tolerated”—recommended stricter oversight of the private golf clubs at the municipal courses and their integration.

No one seems to know, however—not the park board historian, not the foremost historian on Black golf in the Twin Cities, nor Solomon Hughes’ daughter—how the park board acted on this recommendation. They do seem to agree, though, that Hughes, along with his brother, was granted admission into the Hiawatha clubhouse in 1952. (Wirth and other course clubhouses followed suit, but not until the ’60s.) “He was indignant at the fact that he was such a good golfer yet people wanted to bar him,” Shirley Hughes says.

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

The Vote

At its July 21, 2021, meeting, the park board voted unanimously to rename the Hiawatha clubhouse in honor of Solomon Hughes Sr. But it could not agree on the master plan. LaTrisha Vetaw opposed it, not wanting to erase history by reducing the course from 18 to nine holes, telling her fellow commissioners, “I can’t be the Black woman who sits on this dais and says, ‘Solomon Hughes and his children don’t matter,’ and all those hundreds, maybe thousands of Black people who have reached out to me about this don’t matter.”

The board ultimately voted 5-4 against the redesign, upholding the status quo as an 18-hole course and a groundwater basin. Even with the drought this summer, the course’s maintenance crew is on pace to pump more than 400 million gallons of groundwater off the course simply 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 the moment, the course’s future remains in limbo.

Opponents of reducing the number of holes at the course, which remains widely popular with Black golfers, cheered both park board votes. Ten days later, the Hiawatha Golf Course hosted the 2021 edition of the Bronze, running a virtual victory lap across 18 holes. “This is one of the most diverse golf courses that you will find in the Twin Cities area,” says Darwin Dean, who has run the Bronze since 2012. “To turn it into something less than what you see today is a crime against this community.”