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Booker T. Washington Playground

Booker T. Washington Playground

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

This property is named for civil rights leader Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington was born in Franklin County, Virginia, and lived there for the first nine years of his life. Following the conclusion of the Civil War, the Washington family moved to Malden, West Virginia, where Booker worked in a salt furnace and coal mines. Because of his heavy work schedule, Washington received his early schooling between jobs. From 1872 to 1875, he attended the newly formed Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now known as Hampton University. In 1879, he returned to Hampton as a professor while simultaneously organizing a night school and industrial training program for Native Americans. In 1881, impressed by the program’s success, Hampton’s founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong appointed Washington dean of the newly founded Tuskegee University in Alabama. Tuskegee’s success garnered national praise for both Booker T. Washington and the institute’s industrial/agricultural curriculum.

On September 18, 1895, the educator delivered a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, known as “The Atlanta Compromise” in which he argued that the problems of African Americans could be greatly reduced through vocational training and economic self-reliance. The speech drew accolades from many people of all ethnic groups. Some intellectuals, however, criticized Washington as too moderate. Washington drew fire from W. E. B. DuBois for his beliefs; DuBois believed economic reform without social reform to be an acceptance of subordination. Despite some criticism, Washington continued his work and founded several organizations including the National Negro Business League. He also authored many books including The Future of the American Negro (1899), Up from Slavery (1901), Life of Frederick Douglass (1907), The Story of the Negro (1909), and My Larger Education (1911).

Booker T. Washington Playground is situated on 108th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. The playground lies within Manhattan Valley, which is the area south of Morningside Heights and north of the Upper West Side. The name became common during the 1960s and refers to the sloping of Manhattan Avenue north of 100th Street. Prior to the construction of Central Park (1859), squatters, shacks, and shantytowns filled the area. The construction of the park evicted residents of the settlements. In the late 1870s, several asylums for the elderly and disadvantaged were built in Manhattan Valley. The neighborhood was also the original home of the New York Cancer Hospital, which has since moved and been renamed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The City of New York acquired this property on March 8, 1943, via a condemnation proceeding. The property was intended to be used for the construction of the West Side Vocational High School. After the Board of Education failed to complete the project due to budgetary constraints, Parks acquired the parcel on July 20, 1950. The park, which shares its name with adjacent J.H.S. Booker T. Washington School, was named by Commissioner Stern. The facility provides recreation for the school and local community with eight basketball standards, one full basketball court, four handball courts, and a large open play area.

Directions to Booker T. Washington Playground

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