Frederick Johnson Playground
Frederick Johnson Park
Frederick Johnson (1891-1963) was an inspirational tennis player, coach, teacher and Harlem native who enriched the lives of countless members of this community. Johnson was a gifted sportsman from his earliest years, but an accident from his youth claimed his left arm just above the elbow. Determined to remain active, he soon taught himself to play tennis, defying everyone’s expectations about his apparent disability. After developing his own unique style of play, Johnson eventually competed professionally.
The highlight of Johnson’s career came later in his life when he began promoting tennis in Harlem, sharing his love of the game by teaching it to others, often on the very courts in this park. For half a century, until his death in 1963, Johnson was at the forefront of the Harlem tennis scene, teaching and mentoring the area’s youth. Perhaps his most notable success was his discovery of star player Althea Gibson. Johnson gave Gibson her first lesson in the summer of 1941 and entered her in her first tournament in 1942. Under his guidance, Gibson went on to become one of tennis’s most accomplished competitors despite the segregation then prevalent in the tennis world. In 1950, Gibson became the first African-American tennis player to compete at the National Championships (later known as the U.S. Open) in Forest Hills. In 1957 and 1958, she won both the Championships at Wimbledon and the United States National Championships.
Parks acquired this land, bounded by 150th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, in three separate parcels from the Department of Transportation and the United States Housing Authority in 1937 and 1947. Frederick Johnson Park, featuring eight tennis courts, was unofficially named for Johnson on October 23, 1971. In announcing the program at the ceremony that day, Parks Commissioner August Heckscher (1914-1997) remembered that Johnson “did not allow his handicap to keep him from reaching his goal, nor did it deter him from making significant contributions in promoting and teaching tennis in the Harlem community. In dedicating this park we are paying but a small tribute to his memory.” A monument to Johnson, constructed out of granite by Keystone Monument Company and funded by the Frederick Johnson Memorial Committee, was also unveiled. Ten years later, in 1981, Parks completed a $500,000 capital rehabilitation project, which provided resurfacing for all eight courts, new fencing, posts and nets, the rehabilitation of the comfort station, and new flood lights which provided more playing time for the community.
In addition to tennis courts, this park offers eight handball courts, and a playground with two separate play areas surrounded by benches and chess and checker tables. The silver maple trees (Acer saccharinum) surrounding the park provide a welcome canopy of shade while a stand of littleleaf linden trees (Tilia cordata) between the two sets of four courts shelters tennis players between games.
Outside Tennis Court #7, a bronze plaque mounted on a three-and-a-half foot concrete pillar sculpted by Albert Benevento in 1986 and funded by the Fred Johnson Park Association, honors the memory of Harlem’s cherished Councilman Fred Samuel, who passed away on September 12, 1985. Tennis Court #7 was officially dedicated to Councilman Samuel on August 11, 1992. A playground named for Samuel stands at Lenox Avenue and West 139 Street.
In 1996, Parks completed renovations of the handball walls and court pavement, which cost $25,000, and in 1998 new sidewalks, paths, pavements, and play equipment with safety surfacing were installed at a cost of $127,677. Mayor Giuliani funded both of these recent improvement projects.
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