Dorrance Brooks Square
Dorrance Brooks Square
What was here before?
After being home to the Lenape for thousands of years, Harlem was settled by Dutch farmers in the late 1600s. The neighborhood’s agricultural yield began to wane after the American Revolution and many residents moved to southern Manhattan’s newly industrialized areas. In the 1880s Harlem developed quickly with an influx of new residents as elevated trains and tenement houses were constructed.
How did this site become a park?
Parks acquired the site by condemnation in 1913. The square opened in 1925 with a flagpole and a cannon (later removed) at its south end.
The square’s dedication ceremony on June 14, 1925 was said to have been attended by more than 10,000 people and was 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 honor an African-American 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 1960s, community leaders Dr. Mamie Clark (1917-1983) and Ella Baker (1903-1986) formed “We Care” at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church across the street. The organization helped area residents obtain employment, job training, health care, and legal assistance.
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 square and immediately surrounding blocks were designated the Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District in 2021.
Who is this square named for?
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 369th Infantry Regiment (formerly the 15th Regiment). 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 exceptional bravery “signal bravery” in leading the remnants of his company after his superior officers were killed.