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Dorrance Brooks Square

Dorrance Brooks Square

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

This park is named in honor of Dorrance Brooks (d. 1918), an African American soldier who died in France shortly before the end of World War I. A native of Harlem and the son of a Civil War veteran, Brooks was a Private First Class in the 15th Infantry. In World War I, African American soldiers served in segregated regiments and were not eligible for aid from the Army Nurse Corps or the American Red Cross. In spite of these discouragements, Brooks distinguished himself as a faithful and patriotic soldier. Brooks was praised for his “signal bravery” in leading the remnants of his company after his superior officers were killed.

When this square was dedicated on June 14, 1925, more than 10,000 people were said to have attended the ceremony, presided over by Mayor John F. Hylan and Colonel William Hayward, commander of the 15th Infantry.  The New York Times reported that Dorrance Brooks Square was “the first public square to be named after a Negro soldier.” In October 1952, President Truman, who four years earlier had issued an executive order requiring “equality of treatment and opportunity” in the armed forces, addressed an audience of 50,000 from this small square to celebrate the desegregation of the services.

Dorrance Brooks Square continued its tradition of being central to the fight for racial equality. In the late 1960s, two community leaders helped found an organization from the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church across the street from the park. Dr. Mamie Clark (1917-1983) and Ella Baker (1903-1986) formed “We Care” to reach out to young people in the St. Nicholas neighborhood during the height of the civil rights movement, helping area residents obtain employment, job training, health care, and legal assistance, as well as publishing City Scene, a community events newspaper. These efforts were crucial at a time when the injustice of racial segregation ignited Harlem, challenging individuals and institutions to organize and break down racial barriers.

Dr. Clark dedicated her career to ending racial inequality in the provision of social services, serving as director of the Northside Center for Child Development, a facility for children with developmental and learning disorders, and organizing other programs for Harlem children. Baker was one of the country’s most important civil rights leaders, serving as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, and leading efforts to address segregation in the City’s public schools. 

Parks acquired the site by condemnation on July 22, 1913. It is defined by an open triangular space bounded by West 136th  Street and 137th Street, and St. Nicholas Avenue and Edgecombe Avenue. Opposite the square is the historic St. Nicholas Park, which now contains the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, where the influential Federalist statesman Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) once lived. When the square was dedicated, a flagpole and a cannon (later removed) stood at its south end. 

Today, the square is lined with benches and London Plane trees. In 2001, two benches and two trees were dedicated to Dr. Mamie Clark and Ella Baker in honor of their contributions to this community. The Dorrance Brooks Property Owners and Residents Association partners with the 369th Historical Society to help augment NYC Parks’ efforts to care for this site with such significant historical associations.

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