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Council supports “Muny” golf course preservation

Friday, February 12, 2016 by Jack Craver

When the average American thinks of activities that promote diversity, golf is probably not the first one that comes to mind.

But on Thursday, City Council unanimously endorsed a resolution that seeks to recognize the Lions Municipal Golf Course as a historic site, largely because of the unique role that “Muny,” as it is affectionately called, played in advancing racial integration in Austin.

The resolution Council passed urges that the course be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but does not guarantee it.

According to Save Muny, an advocacy group pushing the historic designation, the golf course became the first in the South to desegregate when Alvin Propps, a 9-year-old black boy, played a round of golf at the course, where he worked as a caddie. According to supporters of the resolution, the event likely took place in late 1950 or early 1951.

Although Propps and the friend he was playing with were initially apprehended by police, then-Mayor Taylor Glass, in consultation with several members of Council, said the kids should be allowed to play on.

“Blacks could play freely thereafter at Muny, and after word got out, they came from Central Texas, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to play,” said Robert Ozer, one of the resolution supporters.

That event helped quash plans to build a separate, blacks-only golf course.

Introducing the resolution, Council Member Sheri Gallo said in a prepared statement that the golf course represented an important moment in history that preceded the end of legal segregation in Austin and elsewhere throughout the South.

“I hope that this resolution shows that we as a Council and as a city want Muny to be recognized for the changes in hearts and in minds that began in 1951,” she said.

Appearing before Council in support of the proposal, pro golfer and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who grew up playing Muny, was overcome by emotion for several seconds at the beginning of his address.

“When I think of Muny, I think about my life,” said the golfer, who earned the nickname “Gentle Ben” during a professional career that has spanned decades. “I spent so many hours at Muny, with all kinds of people,” he said. “But (the reason) was very simple: that we all love the game of golf.”

The potential historic designation seeks not only to recognize the course’s history but to ward off future development of the land by its owner, the University of Texas. UT has leased the land to the city since 1936 but has announced that the lease would not be renewed after it expires in 2019.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said he was inclined to support the designation but wanted to know whether UT was aware of Council’s plans.

Both Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ora Houston said they had spoken recently with UT President Greg Fenves about the importance of preserving the course. It is not clear whether Fenves has a position on the issue; the decision on the lease was made by the board of regents before Fenves was president.

“I think they were well-aware this was coming,” said Houston.

Council Member Pio Renteria also lent his support to the resolution, saying he was glad to see Austinites acknowledge the role that segregation played in shaping the city. He recalled his own experiences with racial discrimination, saying that he was not able to buy a home west of Congress Avenue when he got married. His housing application, he said, was denied “because of the color of my skin.”

“I want to thank y’all for admitting that Austin did discriminate in the past,” he said.

Photo by Lotus Head from Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa – sxc.hu, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96860

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