Why Saving This Texas Golf Course Is So Crucial

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Lions Municipal Golf Course: One of the most vital civil rights sites in Texas — and America — could be destroyed to make way for mixed-use development. (Photo: The Cultural Landscape Foundation/courtesy Save Muny)

Golf courses, the venue for America's most land-intensive leisure pursuit, don't always have the best rep.

When environmental stewardship isn't a priority in the management of golf courses, these traditionally water-hogging, pesticide-dusted swaths of manicured turf can take a toll on local ecosystems and resources. Often, golf courses spur more development, which, in turn, further disrupts and displaces wildlife. Yet in many areas, the popularity of golf is waning, leading some municipalities to revaluate whether city-owned courses should be shuttered altogether and converted back into habitat-rich woodlands or revamped into sprawling public parks and nature preserves for all to enjoy.

Some golf courses, however, should live on and continue to serve their intended purpose. Lions Municipal Golf Course — or Muny, for short — in Austin, Texas, is one of them.

Established in 1924 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, this 18-hole (originally nine) facility sprawling across 141 oak-shaded acres just a 2-mile fly west of the state capitol is regionally popular, tidily maintained and of moderate difficulty. City-operated since 1936, the beloved and "very prettily situated" Muny has received adulation from pro golf luminaries and club-swinging celebrities alike —it's also the longtime home of Texas' oldest annual amateur golf tournament. And while Muny is no Pebble Beach or Bethpage Black, these public links are nothing less than legendary for golfers in the Lone Star State.

1939 aerial photo of Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin
An overhead view of Austin's beloved 'Muny' golf course captured in the late 1930s. (Photo: The Cultural Landscape Foundation/courtesy Save Muny)

Muny's true historic significance, however, lies elsewhere.

In 1950, four years ahead of the watershed Brown v. Board of Education, Muny became the first golf course in the South to desegregate — and remarkably for the era, it all happened quietly with little incident. The catalyst for this consequential moment in the American civil rights movement was a 9-year-old Black caddy named Alvin Propps who, along with a friend, decided to play the course at which he was employed. The boys were swiftly arrested for violating Jim Crow laws but were ultimately never prosecuted after the mayor's office decided to drop the charges. These events sparked a wave of desegregation across Austin as the city's African American residents found themselves, for the first time, free to use many of the same public resources and amenities as their white neighbors.

Muny's role as the first integrated public golf course south of the Mason-Dixon line has had significant reverberations. The desegregation of Muny has shaped how Americans understand and engage with public recreation — that is, no matter if one is golfing, swimming, playing ball or simply talking a stroll through a park, the color of one's skin should not and cannot define, by law, where we are allowed to go or not to go. As far as the intersection of equality and public spaces goes, the desegregation of Austin's most storied public golf course was nothing short of revolutionary.

"As the complex struggle for racial justice continues to take center stage across America, places like Austin's Lions Municipal Golf Course have much to teach us about peaceful efforts towards increased human decency and respect," said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in 2016.

Clubhouse at Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas
The original clubhouse at Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, which was the last part of the course to be desegregated. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Austin's at-risk recreational icon

Despite its pivotal role in the push toward a more equal and just America, Lions Municipal Golf Course — that rare dual recreational hotspot and civil rights landmark — has long been under threat from development.

In 2011, the University of Texas at Austin, which owns the tract of land that the course is situated on, announced its intentions to not renew its longstanding lease agreement with the city beyond 2019. Instead, UT Austin would transfer the piece of prime real estate over to developers to make way for commercial businesses and potentially thousands of new housing units. While highly symbolic, the course's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places does not necessarily save it from destruction. It's a strong deterrent, yes, but it doesn't guarantee invincibility.

Joe Louis at Lions Municipal Golf Course, Austin
Joe Louis at Lions Municipal Golf Course, Austin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The National Trust heightened awareness of this threat against Muny by including the course on its annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2016.

And with 2019 now looming nearer, Washington, D.C-based nonprofit The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) has also sounded the alarm by spotlighting Muny in its annual Landslide report, which brings national visibility to a range of at-risk cultural landscapes, including parks, gardens, natural areas and "other places that collectively embody our shared landscape heritage." (With the shuttering and severing of federal lands making headlines last year, the 2017 report zeroed in on vulnerable parks and open spaces, many of them in urban areas.)

Titled "Grounds For Democracy," the 2018 Landscape report is similarly topical. Driving home the point that the struggle for civil and human rights in our own backyard is far from over, "Grounds for Democracy," is timed to mark the 50th anniversary of a slew of country-shaping events that took place in 1968: the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous riots, marches and demonstrations.

There's still work to be done and places to be saved.

In addition to Muny, which TCLF describes as "one of the first Southern public accommodations to desegregate non-violently and without court order," the nine other at-risk sites profiled in "Grounds fo Democracy" are:

  • West Virginia's Blair Mountain Battlefield, which was the site of an epic 1921 coal miner uprising;
  • The childhood home of trailblazing women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony in Battenville, New York;
  • Lincoln Memorial Park, a historic African American cemetery in Miami;
  • Druid Heights, a now-defunct bohemian enclave founded in 1954 by lesbian poet and humanitarian Elsa Gidlow near Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, California;
  • The once-wildly popular Hall of Fame of Great Americans, located on the campus of Bronx Community College in New York City;
  • Hog Hammock, a small community on Sapelo Island, Georgia, believed to be the last remaining vestige of West Africa-derived Gullah-Geechee culture;
  • Princeville, North Carolina, the first town in the U.S. to be incorporated by African Americans;
  • Various World War II-era Japanese American confinement housing sites scattered throughout the American West;
  • And the lynching sites of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, which are painful to think about but important to never, ever forget.

"Civil and human rights, the labor movement, LGBT rights — all of these are associated with actual, physical places that provide unique, authentic, tangible context," TCLF founder and president Charles Birnbaum tells MNN. "These often-neglected, unmarked, under-appreciated and threatened sites provide irreplaceable connections that inform the ever-evolving, at times cathartic, dialogue about our collective national identity."

As TCLF notes, the sites selected for "Grounds for Democracy" were nominated by individuals and organizations associated with the preservation and promotion of these unique and vital American places, which are facing an uphill battle against shrinking funding, Mother Nature-helmed deterioration, development and neglect.

Black caddy at Muny in 1939
While black Austinites caddied at Muny, they weren't allowed to play until 1950. (Photo: The Cultural Landscape Foundation/courtesy Save Muny)

A golf course that nobody wants to see go

The effort to save Muny from mixed-use development is spearheaded by Save Muny, a grassroots campaign dating back to 1973 when the UT Austin first announced its intentions to raze the historic golf course and replace it with something entirely new. Those plans were, of course, squashed but the threat never really went away.

Cognizant of declining golf course patronage and that environmental woes often plagued older facilities, Save Muny doesn't necessarily seek to keep the course frozen in time. Guarding it as a relic, no matter how historically important, won't do anyone any good.

The group does, however, imagine the course serving as an even greater community asset than it already does. Noting its abundance of heritage trees and passive role as a "wildlife sanctuary and water recharge zone," the Save Muny website, which features a "days until Muny lease ends" countdown clock, instead envisions the course undergoing a thoughtful and throwback-y restoration led by Austin golf icon Ben Crenshaw that modernizes elements of the course while also emphasizing its historic significance. (A bill that would have "saved" the course by transferring it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department faltered in 2017.)

Save Muny has also pondered the possibility of opening up the course as a free-to-the-public park on certain days while championing the property as a centrally located urban green space, a verdant buffer in a dense and desirable city that enhances the quality of life for golfing and non-golfing Austinites alike.

Among other things, razing Muny to make way for new development would mean the loss of both Austin's only 18-hole golf course and a civil rights landmark. It would mean, per the Save Muny campaign, "the end of a public place that has been part of Austin's fabric for more than half the city's lifetime."

As TCLF notes in its report, the struggle to save Muny, which Jacqueline Jones, chair of the Department of History at UT-Austin, calls "an asset of immense historical and educational value," all boils down to money.

In its current lease agreement with the city, cash-strapped UT Austin brings in $500,000 annually. If redeveloped, the land could potentially earn the school up to $5.5 million per year — a Texas-sized increase. The university recently offered to extend the lease past the upcoming deadline but with significant increases to the existing rental-fee agreement. It's not yet clear if the city can realistically meet these demands as negotiations move forward.

In the past, the university has floated a poorly received idea to raze and redevelop the entire course but spare the clubhouse and keep it open for public use. This would do little to preserve the most important historic element of Muny, however, as the clubhouse was the last element of the course to desegregate. Keeping the clubhouse but doing away with the greens isn't just offensive ... it doesn't make much sense. (For years, Black golfers were allowed to play the course but had to use a separate clubhouse, which has since been demolished.)

There's no doubt Muny and other endangered American sites with deep ties to civil and human rights benefit from exposure in reports like "Ground For Democracy." This doesn't mean, however, that the clock will stop ticking. And so long as the clock is ticketing, groups like Save Muny will remain on the frontlines.

Says Birnbaum: "It's because of the tenacity of passionate supporters and advocates that cultural landscapes and their associated lifeways can continue to contribute to the richness and irreplaceable sense of place of our broader built environment."