This playground is named in honor of James A. Bland (1854-1911), a Flushing native known to many as the “greatest black writer of American folk songs” and the “world’s greatest minstrel man.” Bland was born just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War to a long line of free African Americans. At a young age Bland moved with his family to Washington, D.C., where his father had recently become the first African American appointed Examiner in the United States Patent Office. The boy taught himself to play an $8 banjo that his father had bought for him, and earned money by playing and singing in the streets.
While attending Howard University in the early 1870s, Bland was discovered by John Ford, owner of the Ford theater. His popularity skyrocketed almost immediately. At age 19, he wrote what remains his best known song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which Virginia adopted as its state song in 1940. In 1891, Bland joined a Negro minstrel company that paid him $10,000 a year to tour- the highest salary a minstrel had ever earned. He composed roughly 700 songs for the minstrel stage, but only a few were copyrighted. Many of his songs became the property of other minstrel singers and entertainers, since the owner and chief performer of a minstrel troupe could lay claim to the songs he performed.
Between 1882 and 1901, Bland lived in England and Scotland and toured throughout Europe, where he enjoyed tremendous popularity. He performed at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria, and Prince Edward of Wales often attended his stage shows. Despite his success there, however, Bland gradually lost his fortune and returned to the United States in 1901, destitute and penniless. During the 20 years he had been in Europe, minstrel shows had gone out of style in the United States, and he was unable to write songs in the newly popular vaudeville style. He died of tuberculosis, alone, on May 5, 1911, in Philadelphia. There was not even a death notice in the newspapers to record his passing. Only in later years did critics remember his genius.
In 1949, the City of New York acquired land in Flushing for this playground and the Flushing Houses. The Housing Authority transferred the playground property to Parks in 1952, and the playground opened to the public soon thereafter. Bounded by the Flushing Houses, Long Island Railroad train tracks, and the train station, the playground features separate play areas for different age groups. Bland Playground is equipped with a spray shower, basketball and handball courts, and modular playground equipment for older children.