Golfers are using a new strategy to try to save the Hiawatha Golf Club: Noting its significance to black golfers as one of the first Minneapolis courses that welcomed African-Americans.

About 100 people turned out Tuesday evening to protest the Minneapolis Park Board's decision to reduce the groundwater pumping that keeps the golf course dry, a move that would close the course at the end of the 2019 season.

"We decided that we needed to take matters into our own hands," said Charles Rodgers, organizer and South High assistant golf coach. "This is the only course that allowed black people to play 60 years ago. All of a sudden, you're going to kill history? Nine white commissioners decided to say black history did not matter."

The state Department of Natural Resources recommended that the Park Board reduce pumping at the course after discovering in 2014 the board had been pumping more than allowed by its state permit. The course will be reconfigured as a park — after a planning process involving the public — and Park Board members asked staff to explore options for keeping golf at the site in some form.

But supporters are not convinced the 18-hole course should close.

Harry Davis Jr., 71, a longtime civic leader, recalled his trips to Hiawatha at age 10 with his father, Harry Davis Sr., former school board member and civil rights activist. He said the course means a lot to the black community, including a group he belongs to called the ONGL, or Old Negro Golf League.

"Hiawatha has a historical significance because it was a meeting point for the black community," Davis said. "It was a place of friendship and camaraderie."

Activist and Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds on Tuesday criticized the Park Board for having "too much unchecked power."

She also blasted the board for taking action without a clear vision for how to use the land post-golf. "One of the things that struck me is the fact that there's a push to close this golf course and they don't have any solid plans for redevelopment," she said. "That makes absolutely no sense."

Bobby Warfield has been golfing at Hiawatha since he moved to Minneapolis from Pine Bluff, Ark., in 1974. Fellow black golfers "told me Hiawatha was a very accepting course," Warfield said.

"I could see other people who look like me, and I felt I belonged," he added.

Denis Gardner, national register historian at the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, said Hiawatha is part of the Grand Rounds historic district, which was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places several years ago. But Grand Rounds isn't on the register yet.

"If these golfers can demonstrate that this property is indeed historically significant and does in fact have historical integrity, then it's possible it could be listed individually," Gardner said.

Gardner said the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office will have a say in the closure issue if the course or the Grand Rounds makes it onto the list. But that still doesn't guarantee the course would remain open, he said.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203