December 30, 2020, | Op-Ed By Darwin Dean

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd lost his life while in the custody of Minneapolis police. About two months later, spurred by massive protest and civil unrest locally and around the world, the elected officials comprising the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution that declared racism a public health emergency. The resolution notes that Minneapolis has some of the “starkest racial inequities in the country” in homeownership, poverty, and education.

The resolution goes on to commit to a “development of policies, practices and strategic investments to reverse racial inequities, eliminate institutional racism, and ensure that outcomes and opportunities for all people are no longer predictable by race….” Unfortunately, another group of elected officials, namely the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), is intending to ensure an outcome that is all too predictable by race.

Just two miles from the spot where George Floyd lost his life is the Hiawatha Golf Club, a championship-caliber 18-hole course under the jurisdiction of the MPRB. When it opened in 1934 following a recommendation by Minneapolis’ visionary park planner Theodore Wirth, Hiawatha was one of the few courses in America to welcome African Americans. Musich is one of the most ardent forces behind a proposed redevelopment plan at Hiawatha Golf Club. She is the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB) commissioner representing its 5th District, which includes both Hiawatha Golf and ironically the street corner where George Floyd lost his life. This same commissioner also voted against expunging the name of slavery promoter John C. Calhoun from the parkways around Bde Maka Ska.

To this day, Hiawatha is the most popular local course for people of color and is referred to by many as the “Diversity Country Club.” As a longtime avid golfer myself, I can attest to the quality of Hiawatha Golf Club. It’s a beautiful course that tests the skills of even the most accomplished players. And as President of the Upper Midwest Bronze Amateur Memorial Golf Tournament and Junior Bronze Golf Tournament, which were born at Hiawatha, I can attest that it is an invaluable and irreplaceable regional resource for Black players of all ages.

Moreover, the course is used by more than a dozen male and female high school and college golf teams. But now the MPRB plans to reduce Hiawatha to a 9-hole course and use the remaining space for recreational opportunities such as kayaking and bike trails. It’s not like these opportunities don’t exist in the area: Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park is right across the street and Minnehaha Regional Park is just a few blocks away. The Park Board’s rationale for cutting the course in half is that the space is needed to address periodic flooding of the course from excess water in Minnehaha Creek, which runs through Hiawatha, and from stormwater that has been diverted to the lake since 2012.

Flooding is a problem, to be sure. Indeed, Wirth in the late 1920s advocated constructing the golf course and creating the adjacent Lake Hiawatha to address the issue of high water levels in the area. But today those issues can be addressed through other means such as creative redesign of the course, improved stormwater management, and implementation of water storage measures upstream where most of the excess water originates (Lake Minnetonka).

The Park Board is using the water issue as a ruse to cover up a simple land grab. The Executive Summary of MPRB’s Draft Hiawatha Golf Course Area Master Plan states that a 9-hole course would “provide golf and golf learning opportunities equitably to youth and other underrepresented community members.” Wrong. Hiawatha provides those opportunities now. Converting it to a 9-hole course would take away those opportunities.

Half a golf course means half as many golfers, and any golfer will tell you that there’s simply no comparison between a 9-hole course and a championship, 18-hole course. The MPRB has held several listening sessions about their proposed changes to Hiawatha, but some of the board’s commissioners have not been listening to people of color. I have communicated with approximately 200 such individuals, including members of the Old Negro Golf League, the Sterling Club, the Bronze Tournament community, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, participants in the Hiawatha men’s and women’s leagues, the First Tee program, athletic directors of area schools, students, and other golf enthusiasts regarding the Park Board’s Master Plan for Hiawatha Golf Course.

To a person, they are opposed to losing 18 holes of golf at this historic course. On September 25, 2020, I sent a letter to each of the commissioners requesting that they conduct an independent Racial Equity Impact Assessment. I have yet to receive a response from any of them. One of the leading advocates of the proposed Hiawatha redevelopment is Steffanie Musich, the MPRB commissioner representing the 5th District, which includes both Hiawatha Golf Club and the street corner where George Floyd lost his life.

In various public settings, I have heard Commissioner Musich express a desire to listen to Black voices and her preference for cutting the Hiawatha Golf Course in half. This same commissioner also voted against expunging the name of slavery promoter John C. Calhoun from the parkways around Bde Maka Ska. The Park Board does include commissioners in favor of preserving Hiawatha. Commissioner At Large Londel French, in an August 2019 Facebook post, wrote, “If anybody is was wondering how I feel about the Hiawatha Golf Course. This place means so much to so many people who look like me. I see it as my duty to make sure we don’t forget the struggles that made us who we are today.

Hiawatha was the only place where Black folks could play golf in Minnesota. When everyone else closed the door to Black folks playing golf Hiawatha said yes. This legacy must be protected.”Commissioner Kale Severson, representing the 2nd District, has been passionate about preserving the historic course and allocating monies from the project budget to repair the crumbling infrastructure of the greater Minneapolis park system. He has also recommended hiring a new golf course designer to develop a plan to preserve both the 18-hole course and the environment. Commissioner AK Hassan of the 3rd District, in a December 2019 Facebook post, wrote, “I’m particularly disappointed in Commissioner Jono Cowgill and Commissioner Steffanie Musich for having one position when the cameras were on and another behind closed doors. This is not the type of representation that our community deserves and our Somali youth deserve to know when our community are being used as bargaining chips in dark rooms.”

Now is the time to save the historic, 18-hole Hiawatha Golf Club. READ HERE

Darwin Dean is the Founder of Original Golf 18, a Facebook community group that was formed to promote the Save Hiawatha Golf 18-Holes cause. Its mission is to make the public aware of the historic significance of this site.