African-American Namesake Parks
Just as there are many influential African-Americans who have shaped the landscape of our culture, there are many Parks properties that have been named for a fraction of these important Americans. The list below is a sampling of namesake parks; be sure to scour your park for historical signs and discover great citizens of all nationalities and creeds who have been honored.
Charlton Garden in Morrisania honors the heroism of Korean War hero Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton who was awarded a Purple Heart and the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions in battle. When his platoon commander was seriously wounded during an assault, Charlton assumed command of the platoon, rallied the men, and re-launched the attack. Although his platoon suffered heavy casualties, he launched a second and third attack until the enemy position was completely destroyed.
Charlton received both awards while the American military was still partially segregated, and was barred from burial in Arlington National Cemetery because he was African–American. In 1989, the Medal of Honor Society located and exhumed Charlton's grave and re-interred his remains in the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, West Virginia to rightly honor him.
Martin Luther King Triangle
Mott Haven is an appropriate place for a memorial to Dr. King. Before the Civil War (1861–1864), the area was the site of two stations on the Underground Railroad — the villa of Charles Van Doren, which stood at East 145th Street and Third Avenue, and the Mott Haven Dutch Reformed Church, which still stands on East 146th Street. This triangle, bounded by Austin Place and East 149th Streets was named to honor Dr. King after his assassination in 1968.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) was a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. In 1963, he organized the March on Washington to support proposed civil rights legislation. There he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The following year, at age 35, King became the youngest man, the second American, and the third black man to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. One of the great American heroes of the 20th century, he devoted his life to fostering tolerance and equality on the ground that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." His courage continues to inspire people all over the world. King is honored with a national holiday, on the third Monday in January, which falls close to or on his birthday, January 15th.
In Brownsville, Green Playground honors New York City's first African-American Chancellor of the Board of Education, Dr. Richard E. Green. Dr. Green received his appointment from Mayor Edward Koch in March, 1988. His term was cut short when he died of a severe asthma attack in May, 1989.
As Chancellor, Dr. Green cited four main objectives: creating a legislative package to fund new schools, reforming the election process for school board members, giving teachers more say in decision-making processes, and making schools safer and more effective. Dr. Green adamantly believed that children should be "the center" of American culture.
Hattie Carthan Garden
Hattie Carthan (1900–1984) was a Bedford-Stuyvesant resident who always had an interest in trees. When she noticed conditions in her neighborhood beginning to deteriorate, Mrs. Carthan began replanting trees there, and in the process, helped found the Bedford-Stuyvesant Neighborhood Tree Corps and the Green Guerillas. Carthan also led the charge to preserve a particular Southern magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) that became a symbol of the neighborhood. The tree, rare in the northeast, was brought on a ship from North Carolina in 1885. Carthan not only succeeded in having a wall built to protect this tree but also spearheaded the successful attempt to designate it an official city landmark in 1970. It is one of only two trees to be designated as such (and after the 1998 death of the Weeping beech in Queens, the only tree still standing).
Carthan continued her campaign by convincing the City to convert three nearby abandoned homes into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. The brownstones on Lafayette and Marcy Avenues behind Hattie Carthan Garden date to the 1880s and now feature a mural depicting Mrs. Carthan. The Center gained not-for-profit status in 1972. In 1998, Parks named the site to honor Carthan.
Jackie Robinson Park
Baseball great Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) is honored not only by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which connects Brooklyn and Queens but also by two city parks–one in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan. In Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson Park is located on Reid Avenue between Chauncey and Marion Streets; the park was named for Robinson in 1981.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson made history as the first African-American to play in a Major League baseball game, paving the way for generations of black athletes to compete in America's national pastime. Born in Cairo, Georgia, and raised in Pasadena, California, Robinson became the first student to letter in four sports at the University of California, Los Angeles: baseball, basketball, football, and track. Robinson played professional football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs before serving in the army during World War II. After the war, Robinson played baseball in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs, where he caught the eye of Branch Rickey (1881–1965), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey signed Robinson on August 28, 1945 to join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in the International League. Two seasons later, Robinson made it to the majors, leading the Dodgers to six World Series appearances. He retired in 1956 with a lifetime batting average of .311, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Courtney Callender Playground
East Harlem's Courtney Callender Playground is named after New York City's first African-American Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Callender began his career in Parks & Recreation, where he established the Community Relations division, which initiated the policy of including neighborhoods in park decisions.
Callender served as Community Relations Officer from 1966 to 1969 until Commissioner August Heckscher appointed him Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, three years after the Office of Cultural Affairs was transferred from the Mayor's Office to the Parks Department. He held that position until 1972, organizing many community events, including the Harlem Cultural Arts Festival.
Dorrence Brooks Square
Dorrence Brooks Square, located in Manhattan between West 136th and 137th streets, St. Nicholas and Edgecombe avenues, honors Dorrence Brooks (d. 1918), an African-American soldier who died in France shortly before the end of World War I. A native of Harlem and the son of a Civil War veteran, Brooks was a Private First Class in the 15th New York Infantry. Until 1948 African–American soldiers served in segregated divisions, which usually provided only support functions, but the 15th New York Infantry was renamed the 369th United States Infantry and assigned to fight in the French Army's 161st Division. The black soldiers proved courageous in battle and earned many decorations.
Brooks distinguished himself in battle by taking charge of the remnants of his company after the enemy severely reduced their numbers and killed the commanding officers. When the square was dedicated on June 14, 1925, more than 10,000 people attended the ceremony presided over by Mayor John F. Hylan and Colonel William Hayward, commander of the 15th infantry. The New York Times reported that Dorrence Brooks Square was the first public square to be named after an African-American soldier.
Holcombe Rucker Playground
Holcombe Rucker (1926–1965) dedicated his life to his community. Although he died young, his memory endures because of the major basketball tournament he founded. Rucker grew up in Manhattan, attended Benjamin Franklin High School, and between 1948 and 1964, worked for Parks as a playground director in numerous Harlem locales.
In 1947, he started a basketball tournament in Harlem. The Rucker League's motto was "each one, teach one," and it stressed education in combination with recreation. Rucker personally taught participants reading fundamentals, graded their homework, and let success on report cards influence who would play. Throughout the course of the tournaments, Rucker helped to obtain over 700 college athletic scholarships for the participants.
Rucker continued his own education with a degree from the City College of New York in 1962 and then taught English classes at J.H.S. 139. In the 1960s, Rucker transformed his local league into a basketball institution by organizing games where his best players shared the court with professionals such as Wilt Chamberlain. The playground, located north of 155th Street and bounded by Frederick Douglass Boulevard and the Harlem River Drive, was named for him 1974.
Marcus Garvey Park
Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park is named for Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887–1940), the black nationalist leader who strived to promote racial pride and black economic independence. Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887 and emigrated to the United States in 1916, settling in Harlem. In 1918, Garvey established the New York chapter of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
At the UNIA's first convention, held at Madison Square Garden in 1920, Garvey officially launched his Pan-African movement, announcing plans to build an independent nation in West Africa. The park, originally known as Mount Morris Park, was renamed for Marcus Garvey in 1973 under a local law introduced by Councilmember Charles L. Taylor.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson Park
This park, located on 150th Street and Seventh Avenue, is named for an important figure in African–American culture: entertainer and philanthropist Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878–1949–. For years Robinson lived opposite this park at the Dunbar Apartments, home to many prominent African–Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois and A. Phillip Randolph. Dismayed by the lack of play spaces for children, in 1934, Robinson persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., owner of the property, to deed the land to the City as a public park. The playground opened in November of that year and included a jungle gym, swings, seesaws, and handball courts.
Robinson's commitment to the community earned him the honorary title "Mayor of Harlem." He used this influence to help save a remnant of the historical Tree of Hope that stood opposite the Lafayette Theater at 131st Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard). The stump of the elm, the bark of which performers once rubbed for good luck, was preserved along with a commemorative plaque that Robinson funded.
Jackie Robinson Park
Baseball great Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) is honored not only by the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which connects Brooklyn and Queens but also by two city parks–one in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan. In Manhattan, Jackie Robinson Park is located between Bradhurst and Edgecombe avenues from West 145th to West 155th streets; the park was originally known as Colonial Park until it was renamed for Jackie Robinson in 1978 under a local law introduced by Councilmember Fred Samuel. Manhattan's Jackie Robinson Recreation Center also features a bronze portrait bust depicting Robinson. The piece was created by Inge Hardison (b. 1904) and was installed in the entryway of the recreation center in 1981.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson made history as the first African–American to play in a Major League baseball game, paving the way for generations of black athletes to compete in America's national pastime. Born in Cairo, Georgia, and raised in Pasadena, California, Robinson became the first student to letter in four sports at the University of California, Los Angeles: baseball, basketball, football, and track. Robinson played professional football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs before serving in the army during World War II. After the war, Robinson played baseball in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs, where he caught the eye of Branch Rickey (1881–1965), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey signed Robinson on August 28, 1945 to join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' Triple–A affiliate in the International League. Two seasons later, Robinson made it to the majors, leading the Dodgers to six World Series appearances. He retired in 1956 with a lifetime batting average of .311, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Louis Armstrong Stadium and Community Center
Louis Armstrong Stadium, located at the north end of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park near Shea Stadium, is dedicated to the legendary jazz musician Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (1901–1971). By the time Armstrong settled in Corona, Queens, "Satchmo" (short for "satchel mouth", an apparent play on his breath capacity when playing his instruments) had become an international celebrity. He played with such legends as Bessie Smith (1894–1937), Glenn Miller (1904–1944), and Bing Crosby (1903-1977).
Cutting records, performing for royalty, filming movies, and playing in bands small and large, Armstrong traveled an average of 300 days out of the year. Armstrong is also honored with a large-scale painted cast-iron and welded steel abstract sculpture at the Louis Armstrong Community Center on 108th Street in Corona, Queens, a short walk from Armstrong's last home. The piece, Little Dances, was sculpted by Howard McCalebb (born 1947), and pays homage to Armstrong with an open composition of tubular steel painted bright green, with raised text on a cylindrical base, that transposes the jazz musician's musical interpretation into free form in space.
Bland Playground in Flushing is named in honor of James A. Bland, a Flushing native who was known as the "world's greatest minstrel man." A self-taught musician, Bland wrote more than 700 songs and, at the height of his career, he earned over $10,000 a year on tours. From 1882 until 1901, Bland traveled all over Europe, enjoying tremendous popularity and performing for a number of dignitaries, including Queen Victoria and Prince Edward of Wales.
Unfortunately, when he returned home to America, he had difficulty acclimating to the new vaudeville style and lost the rights to almost all of his songs. He died alone in Philadelphia. Only later was his genius recognized by music scholars.
Other Queens Parks Named for African–Americans
Corporal Thompson Square
West New Brighton's Corporal Thompson Square honors yet another war hero. In 1972, the park was named for Corporal Lawrence Thompson, the first African–American from Staten Island to be killed in the Vietnam War. Corporal Thompson enlisted in the Marine Corps and served with the honor guard in Vietnam. Refusing a medical discharge for a foot ailment, Thompson re–enlisted for a second tour of duty and was killed in action in 1967.