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William McCray Playground

William McCray Playground

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

World War I soldier William McCray (1898-1918) was born in New York City on February 7, 1898. He attended public school locally and enlisted on June 4, 1917 in the 15th Regiment, New York Guard, the troop popularly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. All of the enlisted men in the regiment (formed in 1913) were African-American, and most of the officers were white. The soldiers arrived in France in December 1917 and were redesignated as the 369th Regiment. They joined the 16th and 161st Divisions of the French Army under the command of General Levaue.

Using French weapons, helmets, and equipment, the 369th fought bravely and earned the Croix de Guerre as a unit citation. When the American headquarters asked the French to segregate the troops, the request was refused. McCray attained the rank of corporal. He was killed in a local infantry attack in the Champagne Sector on September 12, 1918. A year after the end of the war, the Harlem Hellfighters constructed their armory at Fifth Avenue and 142nd Street. In addition to their service in World War I, the unit was active in World War II and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars.

William McCray Playground is one of nine playgrounds that was built by the Parks Department through a war memorial fund, and was opened simultaneously on July 15, 1934. The War Memorial Fund of $250,000 was established in 1921 with monies collected by the Police Department, and by 1934 the fund—never spent—had grown in value to $350,000. Seeking additional open spaces for children, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses obtained a legal ruling which permitted use of the fund for playground development. Marked with a commemorative tablet, each property was to honor the memory of a soldier who gave his life in combat.

The Fund was transferred to Parks on March 19, 1934, and with additional funding from the Federal Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, the nine playgrounds were constructed within four months. Each site was equipped with a play area, wading pool, brick field house and comfort station, and flagpole. This construction was part of a larger citywide effort which expanded the number of playgrounds from 157 to 196 in that year. The war memorial playgrounds were dedicated in an official ceremony led by Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia and Commissioner Moses at William E. Sheridan Playground in Brooklyn. From Brooklyn the ceremony was broadcast to all the other playgrounds by an elaborate public address system.

Parks acquired the site at W. 138th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues in 1934. Later additions of land in 1989 and 1992 more than doubled its size of the property. On June 22, 1994 an extensive renovation was completed that provided colorful modular play equipment, safety surfacing, painted games, spray shower, benches, and game tables. New trees were planted, and the basketball court was completely resurfaced. The playground was rededicated on November 16, 1994.

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