“Let them play.”
That was Austin mayor Taylor Glass’s response in 1950, after it was reported to him that two Black youths, one of whom worked as a caddie at the city’s only public golf course, Lions Municipal, had been detained after starting a round on the fairways and greens that had until then been strictly reserved for white golfers. The mayor’s three simple words made Muny, as the facility is known, the first desegregated public golf links in the former Confederacy and quietly vaulted it into the history of America’s civil rights movement—a distinction that supporters now hope will save the course from destruction and commercial development.
Muny was built by the Austin Lions Club in 1924 near the east bank of Lady Bird Lake. Today it is situated on a 141-acre parcel surrounded by what has over the years become tony West Austin. The golf course is operated by the City of Austin but owned by the University of Texas, which has leased the land to the city since 1936 and to the Lions Club for the twelve years prior to that. Muny is celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary this year.
But Muny and those who love it find themselves facing an existential dilemma. The long-term lease between the university and the city was allowed to expire in 2019, and UT has since extended it on a rolling basis every five months. Hanging over the course like a thunderhead is the prospect that the university could sell or lease the prime Central Austin real estate for commercial or residential development. That would further enrich the already wealthy UT system and its $58 billion endowment. But such a deal would mean the end of Muny. The course has faced this threat before, namely in 1973 and then again in the late eighties—I first wrote about the “Save Muny” efforts in 2017—but has managed to survive, at least temporarily, each time.
The land on which the golf course sits came to belong to UT in 1910, when it was deeded to the institution, as part of a larger parcel, by George W. Brackenridge, a businessman, philanthropist, and long-serving member of the university’s board of regents. The entire Brackenridge tract, as it is known, encompasses around 350 acres, including more than 1.5 miles of lakeshore frontage. The property today includes not only the golf course but also an 82-acre biology field laboratory, student housing, and commercial and residential buildings leased from the university. When Brackenridge donated the land, he requested only that it “be used for the benefit of The University of Texas.”
Austin mayor Kirk Watson is a Muny supporter and believes that it should remain a full eighteen-hole facility on its original 141 acres. But he says that the situation between the city and UT is basically unchanged. “I’d characterize it as some talks are happening, but not enough, really,” he said. “But look, we are both public entities and we both have a responsibility to work in the public’s interest. So, again, I remain hopeful that we can come to an agreement. Because of the civil rights events that took place there, it’s an important part of Austin’s history, but it’s also an important part of our country’s history.”
Seventy-four years ago, when nine-year-old caddie Alvin Propps and his friend commenced play, the two Black boys were forced to stop and detained. The course was segregated at that time, as were most public recreational facilities in the South before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodations. Once news of the situation reached Mayor Glass, he consulted with members of the city council, and their decision opened the course to Black golfers from that day forward. Until 1953, Muny was the only municipal golf course in the South that welcomed Black players. For that distinction, Muny was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, and because of the tension between the city and the university, that same year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the country’s eleven “most endangered historic places.”
Muny’s supporters are now hoping to save the course by emphasizing its role in the civil rights movement. Those supporters are led by the Muny Conservancy, which counts among its ranks such boldface names as Willie Nelson and his son Lukas Nelson; Texan actor Luke Wilson; Lori Beveridge, the wife of Tito’s Vodka magnate Tito Beveridge; Angela Garcia, a native Texan who is married to professional golfer Sergio Garcia; and golf legend Ben Crenshaw, who cochairs the conservancy and is, more than anyone, the face of the organization.
Crenshaw was born in Austin less than two years after Muny was desegregated and grew up just blocks from the course. He learned to play golf at Muny, shooting a 74 as a ten-year-old and making his first hole in one there with his mom’s Patty Berg five iron. In 1967, at age fifteen, Crenshaw became the youngest golfer ever to win the Men’s City Championship, and he continued to play the course as a member of the Austin High School and UT golf teams. He then went on to a professional career that included two Masters championships and induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“The Black community has always played an important role in the history of Muny,” Crenshaw told me this week. “From the workers who helped build the course, to the young men who caddied there, to the two courageous youngsters who just wanted to play golf.” Crenshaw praised Mayor Glass for letting them do so and reiterated that afterward, Black golfers from all over the state and beyond came to Muny to play, including, in 1951 and 1953, the great heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. “It was the beginning of a peaceful integration in our city in the fifties and sixties that we take for granted today,” Crenshaw said.
Thursday afternoon, in its latest effort to save the course, the Muny Conservancy hosted NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson at an afternoon event at the golf course. Johnson flew in to help the group celebrate the kickoff of Muny’s hundredth year and spoke to Muny’s importance as a civil rights landmark and the need to save it from development.
“This golf course is significant,” Johnson said at the event. “It’s significant for African Americans because it demonstrates the journey by which we have come. It’s significant because it is a municipal golf course where many African Americans must have played because we for so many years we were barred from playing at private clubs. It’s significant because for the generations to come and the many generations that have come before me it is a signal of our journey in this country and in this state, how far we have had to come. An individual who descended from slavery but is allowed to play golf: that’s a story, it’s an important story.
“This golf course is a part of that story,” Johnson continued. “And to raze it to put condos here or anything else will represent a sad state of how we preserve our history, the journey that we have come through not only as African Americans, but as Americans. This is not a Black story; this is an American story. It’s a story that we all should recognize so we never repeat that history again.”
UT has not publicly stated its intentions for the land, but Crenshaw and the Muny Conservancy have. First and foremost, they’d like to see the course preserved on its current acreage. They also envision a project to restore Lions Municipal to its original layout, before the grounds were redesigned in 1974. Crenshaw, a partner at renowned golf course design firm Coore & Crenshaw, has offered his services at no cost. Notably, the plans include a proposal to transform Muny’s old clubhouse, the very place from which the historic 1950 call to Mayor Glass was placed, into an education center, golf museum, and history collection that will honor Muny’s history and its status as civil rights landmark.
“There are so many reasons for saving Lions,” Crenshaw told me. “At the top of the list is its civil rights and golf history. But to put it simply, it’s a precious asset that has been a gathering place for the people of Austin for one hundred years. You can’t put a dollar value on that. And you can’t ignore the importance of recreational green space, which seems to be shrinking in cities nationwide.
“It would be a shame if Muny is developed,” he added. “We would always look back and lament the loss.”