The youngsters took their final practice swings, then headed out onto Hiawatha's rolling greens, like generations of Black golfers before them. The tournament was about to begin.
For more than 80 years, the Hiawatha Golf Course has hosted "The Bronze," an amateur open that traces its roots to the era of segregated tournaments. Even in the 1930s, this public golf course in south Minneapolis was a space where Black golfers could play in peace — as long as they didn't try to enter the whites-only clubhouse.
As families gathered for the Junior Bronze tournament last week, it was a chance to reflect on the 88-year-old golf course's historic past — and its uncertain future.
"It's all about getting Black and brown kids into golf," said Greg Jameel, program director for the Solomon Hughes Sr. Golf Academy, a program that teaches the fundamentals of the game — and the intangibles. "Golf is a catalyst. A tool, to teach them skills that they'll be able to use off the course, throughout their whole life."
Golf is a game that teaches patience, instructors tell the students who enroll in the program from across the Twin Cities. You can pick up a lot of other lessons in the time it takes to play 18 holes of golf. Lessons about confidence, tenacity, networking, risk-taking.
The Solomon Hughes Sr. Golf Academy — named after a great golfer and even greater champion of Civil Rights — takes its students to college campuses and elite country clubs, so they can see where they're going.
To see the game of golf like Solomon Hughes saw the game, they take them to Hiawatha.
"It's a pretty nice course. Challenging," said 12-year-old Enzo Johnson of Minnetonka, who came to Hiawatha on Thursday to compete in the Junior Bronze tournament — a highlight of summer in south Minneapolis since 1939.
The Hiawatha Golf Course was where Solomon Hughes came to practice for the Saint Paul Open in 1948, wanting to be ready just in case the PGA dropped its whites-only tournament rule. This was where he practiced in 1952, when the organizers finally invited him to compete.
Hiawatha was the course he walked so many times with his son and namesake. Solomon Hughes Jr. may not have appreciated lugging a heavy golf bag across 18 holes at the time, but his father had learned how to play while caddying at a segregated southern golf course, so he taught his son how to put one foot in front of the other, watching, learning, reading the terrain.
"My father taught Joe Louis how to play golf," the younger Hughes said last Thursday, watching the young golfers gather outside the clubhouse the park board renamed in his father's honor last year.
The elder Hughes once asked the legendary boxer how easy it was to knock someone out in the ring. Louis laughed. You might land a lucky punch, Louis told him, but fights are won by the boxers who have what it takes to keep swinging, round after round after round.
"'A champion," Hughes remembers his father telling the story, "'has to know how to go the distance.'"
In the last week of his life, Hughes asked his family for one last look at Hiawatha. The front nine. The back nine. The silver glint of Lake Hiawatha between the trees. The Minneapolis skyline shining in the distance.
This month, the Minneapolis Park Board will decide whether to preserve Sol Hughes' Hiawatha.
Or cut it in half and create something new.
The $40 million proposal on the table would repurpose Hiawatha into a nine-hole course, surrounded by amenities — a dog patio, BMX bike trails, mini golf — and new wetlands for flood control in a park that had been carved out of marshland at the base of a watershed.
Again and again, supporters of the master plan have brought it up for a vote. Again and again, The Bronze Foundation rallied to save Hiawatha as an 18-hole course.
This year's park board is filled with new members who ran on their support for a master plan, pushing for a solution to the runoff and garbage that flows into the park from the rest of the city. Pushing for a park with more activities for more residents to enjoy.
But golf is a game that teaches you patience, and as the board prepares for yet another vote, supporters have teamed up with the Cultural Landscape Foundation of Washington, D.C., and are petitioning to have the golf course added to the National Register of Historic Places.
So many Black neighborhoods, churches and business districts vanished beneath the asphalt when the Twin Cities were deciding where to build their highways. Now bulldozers might carve across Hiawatha as well.
"We're showing our kids what they deserve," said Jameel, watching over his students.
Supporters think these kids deserve more than half a golf course.