Howard Bennett Playground

Howard Bennett Playground

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

Howard Bennett (1911-1981), a Harlem community leader, was the founder of the National Citizens Committee for a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. From the time of Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968 until his own death 13 years later, Bennett campaigned persistently to make January 15, the birthday of the civil rights leader, a national holiday. Bennett and several friends conceived the idea while returning from Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta. After renting a storefront in Harlem, he enlisted the help of a few dedicated grassroots activists and began gathering signatures on petitions.

In April 1970, along with William Byrd and other members of the 131st Street Block Association, Bennett presented six million signatures to Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Detroit Congressman John Conyers. Chisholm and Conyers introduced a bill in Congress, which was finally passed in 1983. On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law making January 15 a national holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Since 1986, the holiday has been observed on the third Monday in January.

Bennett, one of 16 brothers and sisters, was born in Greenwich Village. After serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, he became a leader of the 369th Veterans Association, the organization of members of the famous “Harlem Hellfighters.” He also served as Labor Chairman of the New York Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and was a consultant and confidant of labor leader A. Phillip Randolph. In 1977, Southeastern University of Greenville, South Carolina, awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities for his contribution to the civil rights movement. His last public act was to participate in the Solidarity March on Washington for Jobs on September 19, 1981.

Jointly operated by Parks and the Department of Education, this property was acquired by the City in 1954 when P.S. 197 was built. It was opened as a playground on October 3, 1958. It was named for Bennett in 1982 under a local law introduced by Council Member Fred Samuel and signed by Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1998, the site received $79,000 in upgrades, including new play equipment for disabled children. This work was assisted by volunteers – from the Junior League of New York, P.S. 197 and the community – who worked with City Parks Foundation and the Horticultural Society of New York as well as Parks to improve this park. This site also hosts the annual Upper Manhattan Auto Show, a major attraction of the Harlem Week festivities.

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