Commentary: Bills would accomplish what UT hasn’t — secure Muny’s value

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Volma Overton Jr. speaks during the National Register of Historic Places marker dedication at Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin in October.

Recent commentary in this newspaper has suggested using Lions Municipal Golf Course as a Museum of Housing Segregation in Texas while developing the golf course itself. This is the wrong approach — and the university should be called out on it.

If there is an educational value to preserving Muny, it rests in some part on showing the history of racism at the University of Texas and how the legacy of that racism still exists in the way the university has advocated against preserving Muny and safeguarding the history associated with it.

One of the most powerful examples of this racism is the cynicism through which UT has manipulated the legacy of George W. Brackenridge. They actually argue that he would want to destroy a nationally recognized civil rights landmark.

Brackenridge was a union supporter in the Civil War who was almost hung in Jackson County for his sympathies. After the Civil War he had a Confederate armory demolished using the stones to build a school for blacks in San Antonio named after Frederick Douglas, the black abolitionist. Much of his philanthropy was directed at educational opportunity for the freedman, not at destroying civil rights landmarks. UT is besmirching his good name. But that is only the tip of the iceberg in how UT has responded to the community in their efforts to preserve Muny.

RELATED: Preserving Muny as a golf course is worth the effort.

In fact, instead of embracing and celebrating Muny’s civil rights triumph, UT fought us all along the way as we worked to receive state and federal recognition of the course as a civil rights landmark. Behind the scenes, UT had changes made in the text of a state historical marker to dilute the importance of Muny’s desegregation. They requested the delay of a hearing before the Texas Historical Commission that resulted in the expiration of the term of a prominent African-American preservationist who was the chair of the State Board of Review.

UT contested the nomination of Muny for listing in the National Register and seemed to diminish the role of blacks in desegregating the course. UT even questioned whether Alvin Propps had played the round he did despite it being witnessed by another African-American caddie who is now a retired orthopedic surgeon and former colonel in the military. In order to more easily develop Muny, UT fought against listing the course that was desegregated, and instead wanted to list the clubhouse that remained segregated.

These practices are a throwback to the way UT benched black football players so the white guys could win their games. It is a throwback to the segregationist legacy of George Littlefield whose theories of racial supremacy still flow from a fountain on campus. Why don’t we tear that fountain down and build the Museum of Housing Segregation there instead of destroying a civil rights landmark to do it at Muny?

Now, we have legislation pending that would finally preserve Muny and give us the ability to properly honor its history. Once again UT is fighting it.

My father, Volma Overton Sr., like many other African-Americans of his era, served his country in World War II. Though Dad helped win that war, when African-Americans came back — and many didn’t — they were told their place in an America still under Jim Crow was at the back of the bus. The indignity of that injustice spurred my father to a life of civil rights activism as the head of the local NAACP in Austin.

When I was young, I remember Dad taking me with him to play Muny not that long after the course was desegregated. There were people I knew at the course from Austin but also African-Americans from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio who had come to play. There were no other courses in Texas where blacks had access at that time. Though I didn’t understand it all, I was proud and happy to be there with my Dad.

Muny’s history doesn’t belong in the back of the bus crowded inside a Jim Crow clubhouse, while condos sprout up all around so that the University can shroud the history. It should be out in the open, where all can see it and remember what it means.

I’m supporting Senate Bill 822 and House Bill 4059 because the University of Texas has refused to fully embrace all that Muny represents. It means freedom, equality and simple justice — things everyone should know and fight for, especially UT. And in contrast to the privately owned UT Golf Club, at least since 1951 everyone at Muny gets to play.

Just like the way UT fought Heman Sweatt’s admission to law school, I see UT on the wrong side of history. The riches to be won from honoring history so far outweigh the marginal profits they seek. We give the university a lot, including a big chunk of the funding for its medical school. At the very least, UT should give Muny the respect and honor it deserves as an important symbol of our country’s civil rights history.

Overton is a third-generation Austinite and member of Save Muny.