Bill Bojangles Robinson Playground
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson Park
This modestly sized park is named for an important figure in African-American culture: entertainer and philanthropist Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949). Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, he was orphaned when still an infant. His grandmother, a former slave, raised him and his two siblings. Robinson left home at the age of eight for Washington, D.C., where he worked as a stable boy at the Benning Race Track. Around this time he assumed the name of his brother William and earned his nickname “Bojangles” after stealing a beaver cap from a hat maker named Boujasson.
Captivated by dance and the vaudeville tradition, Robinson soon was performing publicly and appeared in a successful 1892 run of Eddie Leonard’s minstrel show, The South before the War. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Robinson enlisted, seeing action not in combat but as his regiment’s drummer. Robinson began traveling the vaudeville circuit and soon became its first major African-American star. His elaborate routines, including his unique “stair dance” made him a headline performer, and his extravagant habits — it was said that he enjoyed a quart of ice cream each day — helped create a larger-than-life persona. He also is credited for popularizing the phrase “everything is copacetic.”
Widespread publicity and his talents as a tap-dancer earned Robinson a starring role in the Broadway revue Blackbirds of 1928. In the 1930s, Robinson began acting in films. Several, such as The Little Colonel (1935), paired him with child-star Shirley Temple, and Stormy Weather (1943), his last of 14 motion pictures, co-starred singer Lena Horne. Robinson continued to perform in live theatrical productions, including The Hot Mikado at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, held at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens.
Amassing great wealth, Robinson gave away most of his earnings to charities and local organizations. Robinson’s commitment to the community earned him the honorary title Mayor of Harlem. He used this influence to help save a remnant of the historical Tree of Hope that stood opposite the Lafayette Theater at 131st Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard). The stump of the elm, the bark of which performers once rubbed for good luck, was preserved along with a commemorative plaque that Robinson funded.
When Robinson passed away on November 25, 1949, his body lay in state at the 369th Regiment Armory on Fifth Avenue at 142nd Street in Harlem. Luminaries such as Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin served as honorary pallbearers and local schools were closed for Robinson’s funeral. Thousands of citizens witnessed the procession as Robinson’s motorcade passed through Harlem and Times Square on the way to his final resting place in the actors’ section of Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.
For years Robinson lived opposite this park at the Dunbar Apartments, home to many prominent African Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois and A. Phillip Randolph. Dismayed by the lack of play spaces for children, in 1934, Robinson persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., owner of this property, to deed the land to the City as a public park. The playground opened in November of that year and included a jungle gym, swings, seesaws, and handball courts.
In 1992, Mayor David Dinkins funded a $375,000 renovation. The project added new Sentry Gingko (Ginko Biloba) trees, an improved seating area with decorative paving, a new toddler area, basketball court, fencing, lighting, stone veneer walls and a bronze commemorative plaque. The most significant addition was an 18-foot high illusionistic mural depicting Robinson step-dancing. Based on a James J. Kriegsmann photograph and designed by Brandon Adams, the piece features a shadow cast by an actual period street lamp of the type that existed in Harlem during Robinson’s heyday. This small park continues to serve the local community and is a testament to Robinson’s broad impact as an entertainer and humanitarian.