Fred Samuel Playground
Fred Samuel Playground
Frederick E. Samuel (1924-1985) devoted his career as a lawyer and politician to improving the quality of life of the people of Harlem. Samuel was born in Montserrat, West Indies on January 22, 1924. After graduating from the Montserrat Secondary School, he came to New York in 1943. Samuel received his B.S. from McGill University, Montreal, in 1949, his M.A. degree from New York University in 1950, and his J.D. from Fordham University in 1954.
Samuel earned a reputation as the "People’s Lawyer", for the dedication he showed the clients of his Harlem practice. He began his political career as a Democratic Party district leader and was elected councilman for the Fifth District (now the Ninth District) in 1973. He held the office for three terms over the following twelve years. As Chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Samuel was responsible for the adoption of influential legislation, including laws which created the Arson Strike Force and the Department of Juvenile Justice which have become national models. Another institution which Samuel helped to organize was Harlem Day, the annual observance in which volunteer lawyers, doctors and other professionals provide free services to residents.
Samuel died on September 12, 1985, just two days after he won the Democratic nomination for a fourth term. The playground was named in his memory later that same year by a local law introduced by Councilmember Walter Ward and signed by Mayor Edward I. Koch.
The playground is not far from Samuel’s home on Strivers’ Row, where he lived for 17 years. It was acquired in 1937 and was jointly operated by Parks and the adjacent P.S. 139 until the 1980s when the school was moved and the park expanded. The area became unofficially known as the Readers Digest Park in 1975 after the publishers donated funds for its reconstruction. It was redesigned by Henri Legendre, a graduate of P.S. 139.
In 1992 a $ 1.1 million reconstruction was completed that provided the park with new play equipment, a basketball court, a spray shower, benches, and landscaping. At this time the Unity Through Murals Program unveiled the playground-wide mural, a cityscape with Harlem buildings and a portrait of Fred Samuel, painted by neighborhood children.