How Mini-Golf Played A Big Role In Desegregating Public Rec Spaces Washington, D.C., is home to one of the oldest continuously running mini-golf courses in the U.S. The sport became popular in the early 1900s, when there were more than 25,000 courses nationwide.

How Mini-Golf Played A Big Role In Desegregating Public Rec Spaces

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Miniature golf used to be all the rage back in the 1930s. But these days, it's more of a quaint throwback. Here in Washington, there's only one remaining mini-golf course in the nation's capital. WAMU's Mikaela Lefrak went to explore it, putter in hand.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: All right. Do you want to tell us where we are?

MATT BLITZ: Sure. We're at East Potomac Park Mini-Golf Course. It looks pretty tough. I would say this is for folks who really are serious about their mini-golf.

LEFRAK: As we are.

BLITZ: Yeah.

LEFRAK: OK, let's do it.

My opponent on this muggy afternoon is local journalist Matt Blitz. He writes about hidden wonders around Washington for the website Atlas Obscura. But at first glance, this mini-golf course we're at doesn't look particularly wondrous.

BLITZ: It looks pretty old-school, actually. You know, sometimes you go to mini-golf courses that have a lot of windmills or clowns and all that. This is just straight green with some cement.

LEFRAK: But beyond its plain exterior, there's history here. The course is owned by the National Park Service, and it's one of the oldest continuously running mini-golf courses in the country. As Blitz tells me, it was...

BLITZ: ...Built in 1931, at the height of the mini-golf craze in America.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Miniature golf, the sport that’s swept the country. In 1928, there were two of these midget courses in America. By 1930, over 25,000. Every available lot became an adult playground.

LEFRAK: Shortly after the Great Depression, when this newsreel came out, people were building courses everywhere, like on rooftops and in vacant lots. Here in Washington, there were upwards of 30 mini-golf courses in the city proper. National Park Service historian Patti Kuhn Babin is writing a report on the Park Service's network of Washington golf courses.

PATTI KUHN BABIN: I'm not a very good golfer, but I have learned quite a bit about how much these courses, as public golf courses, have played into recreation in the city. They've been important.

LEFRAK: Really important. In the 1930s, the courses were at the center of a big desegregation battle. Back then, only whites were allowed to play golf at East Potomac Park. But one summer day in 1941...

KUHN BABIN: A group of African-Americans came to play the course knowing that it was segregated. White people verbally harassed them in protest. But the next day, the Department of the Interior decided to open the courses to everyone. It was the first step in desegregating all of Washington's public recreation areas. But while all this was happening here, miniature golf's popularity around the country was in retreat.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You ever hear why it was called miniature golf? Well, you start, and in a minute you’re through.

LEFRAK: Suburban mini-golf courses stayed popular for a few more decades. But that trend eventually faded too. Today, our course only gets an average of two dozen visitors a day, people like 8-year-old Ram Shukla and his parents.

RAM: It's beautiful. It's great.

LEFRAK: It's pretty hard though.

RAM: Yeah, it's pretty hard.

LEFRAK: And who's winning the game so far?

RAM: Uh, him.

RAJ SHUKLA: (Laughing).

LEFRAK: He's pointing to his dad, Raj. The course's manager says she'd love to attract more millennials with wine nights and other events. But it's hard to pull off because the course is on federal land.


LEFRAK: But when Blitz and I went, we still had a pretty good time.


BLITZ: Hole-in-one.

LEFRAK: Hole-in-one.


LEFRAK: That was awesome.

For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

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