Austin, Texas – One day in late 1950 or early 1951, William Bacon finished caddieing at Lions Municipal Golf Course, collected his fee – 85 cents for 18 holes back then – and started walking to his home in Clarksville, a black enclave near the course.
Bacon took a shortcut through the woods by the 18th hole and noticed something unusual: two young black boys – a caddie named Alvin Propps, and the other whose name has been lost to history – were hitting their tee shots on 18. At the segregated course, that was a sight never before seen during regular playing hours.
Bacon, a doctor now retired and living in Florida, recalled a friend saying “that Roy Kizer was going to catch it.” Kizer was the Lions superintendent from 1937 to 1973, living in a small house on property; a city course since has been named in his honor.
Bacon, then only 10 or 11 years old, was too young to appreciate the magnitude of that day’s events. Sometimes on rainy days when play was light or on nights when the moon was bright, some of the young black children from Clarksville would slip across Exposition Boulevard to play a few holes.
So when Bacon saw Propps playing in broad daylight, “We didn’t think it was that big a deal.”
That round by Propps, then only 9 years old, was a big deal then, and it’s still a big deal 65 years later. In defying Lions’ ban on blacks, Propps brought about the voluntary desegregation of the course, with the acquiescence of Mayor Taylor Glass and other city officials. General Marshall, Bacon’s fellow caddie and lifelong friend, recalls that it was a white city council member, Emma Long, who said, “Just let them play.”
And so they did. Lions Municipal is believed to be the first municipal course in the South to voluntarily desegregate, coming four years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
In January the Texas Historical Commission voted 8-1 to recommend that Lions Municipal – known in Austin simply as “Muny” – be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The next step is for the commission’s executive director to decide whether to send the proposal to the National Park Service. Separately, the Austin City Council unanimously resolved in February to support the historic designation.
Those preservation efforts, however, might be moot. The University of Texas, which leases the land to the city, has wanted to close the course since the 1970s and develop the site. The university plans to follow through on those plans in 2019, when the city’s lease expires.
George Washington Brackenridge never attended the University of Texas, but he is one of the most important figures in the school’s history and, even in death, a central figure in the “Save Muny” campaign, which dates to the early 1970s.
Brackenridge settled in San Antonio after the Civil War and made his fortune in banking and infrastructure investing. He was a UT regent for 25 years, until 1911, and later for two more years, until 1919, a year before he died, making him the longest-serving regent in school history. He donated freely to various causes, but especially to support education. At one point, shortly before his death, he offered to underwrite UT when the governor vetoed a funding bill.
Brackenridge provided funding to support women interested in studying medicine, architecture and the law, established a school for Mexican-American children in San Antonio, and donated 216 acres and financial support to Guadalupe College, a school for blacks in Seguin, Texas. He also donated land in San Antonio that became a golf course, and of course, deeded the 500-acre Brackenridge Tract to UT in 1910.
In 1924, the Lions Club leased land from UT to build Lions Municipal on the Brackenridge Tract. It was the city’s first public course, opening as a nine-holer, then growing to 18 holes. The Lions Club transferred the lease to the city in 1936, and for many years it also served as UT’s home course.
Brackenridge was pro-Union in a Confederate state, and his sympathies forced him to flee Texas during the Civil War. When he returned, he garnered respect with his unusually generous philanthropy. Ken Tiemann, a “Save Muny” leader, argues that Brackenridge’s extensive donations to minorities and women left a telling legacy – that “he’d recognize the value of a civil-rights site and what that could mean to the University of Texas.”
For attorney Bob Ozer, another “Save Muny” leader, this battle almost serves as a bookend to his childhood. Growing up Jewish in San Antonio, he learned his golf at Brackenridge Park, an A.W. Tillinghast design that opened in 1915. Ozer recalls some days playing 36 holes, then marching to Temple Beth-El to study for his bar mitzvah.
“My whole life was built around that (course),” he said.
Later he matriculated at UT, received his law degree and began practicing, with a heavy emphasis on civil rights. When, eight years ago, he got wind
of Muny’s unique racial history, he was hooked.
“This was kind of up my alley,” he said.
Tiemann, Ozer and the “Save Muny” proponents cleverly have shifted much of the debate from environmentalism and green space, which for years made it a neighborhood squabble, to one of civil rights, which has turned it into a national story.
Ozer noted that Propps played at Lions less than a year after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that rocked Austin and UT. In Sweatt v. Painter, a UT law-school applicant successfully challenged the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregation established by the court in 1896.
Whether young Propps or adults close to him were inspired to act by the Sweatt decision is an open question. Propps, who won the Texas State Amateur Golf Association championship in 1959, died in 2010.
“Regardless whether Propps knew how powerful a statement he was making by criminally trespassing and defying Jim Crow, the mayor and the city council certainly knew how big of a position they were taking when they allowed it to continue,” Tiemann said.
Ozer is less reticent to draw a connection.
“Sweatt v. Painter shot such a big hole in Jim Crow that a 9-year-old goes out and starts playing golf,” he said.
Black golfers were accepted at Lions Municipal, but with reservations. A small, block clubhouse was built for black players, but Marshall said “African-Americans had too much pride to use it.”
News of Muny’s integration spread quickly. Marshall recalled the black doctors, lawyers and teachers, some coming from as far away as San Antonio or Houston, arriving at Muny “in their big cars and (with) their big golf bags,” dressed to the nines.
“To me it was such a sense of racial pride to see these guys drive up and be able to play golf,” said Marshall, who has been involved in the “Save Muny” campaign since the early 1970s.
Marshall, 80, who still shoots in the 70s, believes Muny’s significance extended far beyond golf, serving as a catalyst to integrate swimming pools, libraries and other public facilities in Austin.
“There was this one course that opened its doors,” he said, “and it led other facilities to open in the city.”
The debate over Lions Municipal is nothing new here. It has been a source of consternation in Austin since 1973. Mary Arnold, a local environmentalist who lives a mile from the course, has been involved from the beginning.
“I have always said that something will happen so that we can keep the golf course,” Arnold said. “We’ll just work as hard as we can to make that happen.”
Muny sits on 141 acres of the triangular, 500-acre Brackenridge Tract, and the land for the course is leased to the city for $497,664 annually, according to Kevin Gomillion, the city’s division manager for golf. The school has long wanted to do commercial development on the tract, located three miles west of the main campus.
Many of the “Save Muny” activists, including Ben Crenshaw, have lifelong ties to the course. Peter Barbour, an author and “Save Muny” leader, grew up eight blocks from the course and spent much of his childhood playing there with Crenshaw and other boys.
“We would usually have putting contests where Crenshaw would take our weekly allowance, and then we’d go out and play,” Barbour said.
Crenshaw recalls playing his first round at Muny at age 9, acing the fifth and 11th holes during a wondrous two-day span at age 13, and shooting a pair of 61s there, including once during UT qualifying.
These days, Gomillion said, Lions Municipal typically will do about 60,000 rounds annually, easily outpacing the city’s other five courses. Gomillion said the city would like to arrange either a long-term lease or a land swap with the university, which has indicated it is not receptive to either idea. (A UT spokeswoman did not respond to Golfweek’s requests for comment.)
Crenshaw would like to do a much-needed restoration of the course, an idea backed by “Save Muny” proponents. Gomillion wants to keep the course open, but cautions that it needs to remain affordable. Current green fees max out at $29 on weekends.
“It doesn’t do the golfers of Austin a whole lot of good to have . . . a really expensive golf course that municipal golfers won’t frequent,” he said.
Even if Lions Municipal is listed on the National Register, that would not prevent UT from closing the course. The overriding fact is that the university owns the land and can redevelop it when the lease expires in 2019. But the “Save Muny” activists are betting that the course’s racial history and national recognition on the National Register would make it awkward for UT to close the course.
“If we beat UT, it will be like an amateur winning the Masters,” Tiemann said. “You quit and go out on top. That will be the end of my community activism.”