Frederick Johnson Playground

Frederick Johnson Park

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

What was here before?

This was once the site of a gas station adjacent to the train yard for the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT). The IRT, which opened in 1904, was a privately-owned transit company. Along with the Independent Subway System (IND), it was purchased by the City in 1940 and the New York City Transit Authority was formed, now part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

How did this site become a park?

NYC Parks acquired this land in several phases between 1937 and 1947. On October 23, 1971, NYC Parks Commissioner August Heckscher (1914-1997) named this park for long time tennis instructor, Frederick Johnson, and a granite monument to Johnson, funded by the Frederick Johnson Memorial Committee, was also unveiled at the ceremony.

In 2013, the tennis courts were renovated and in 2021, the playground was reconstructed with new multigenerational play areas, spray showers, and game tables.

Who is this park named for?

Named in 1971, this park honors Frederick Johnson (1891-1963), tennis player, coach, teacher, and Harlem native.

Johnson proved a gifted sportsman from his earliest years, but a childhood accident claimed his left arm just above the elbow. Determined to remain active, he taught himself to play tennis, defying everyone’s expectations about his apparent disability. Johnson developed his own unique style of play and 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 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 (1927-2003).  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.

Directions to Frederick Johnson Playground

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