James A. Bland Playground

James A. Bland Playground

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

What was here before?

This area of Flushing, Queens was once inhabited by the Matinecock, a tribe of the Lenape. They were displaced in the 1600s with the arrival of the Dutch. In 1645, the town of Vlissingen was established by the Dutch West India Company. When the English took control of what would become New York, the name of the town was anglicized to Flushing.

How did this site become a playground?

In 1949, the City of New York acquired land for this playground and the Flushing Houses. The New York City Housing Authority transferred the playground property to NYC Parks in 1952. The playground opened to the public soon after.

The playground features multigenerational play areas equipped with a spray shower and basketball and handball courts.

Who is this playground named for?

This playground is named in honor of James A. Bland (1854-1911), a Flushing native known to many as the “greatest black writer of American folk songs” and the “world’s greatest minstrel man.”

At a young age, Bland moved with his family to Washington, D.C., where his father became the first African American appointed Examiner in the United States Patent Office. Bland taught himself to play the banjo and earned money by playing and singing in the streets.

While attending Howard University in the early 1870s, Bland wrote many songs and was discovered by John Ford, owner of the Ford Theater. His popularity skyrocketed almost immediately. At age 19, he wrote what remains his best-known song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which Virginia adopted as its state song in 1940.

In 1890, Bland joined W.S. Cleveland's Colossal Colored Carnival Minstrels, an all-Black troupe, which was new in the performing world where the artists would usually be white in Black face.

He composed roughly 700 songs for the minstrel stage, but only a few were copyrighted. Many of his songs became the property of other minstrel singers and entertainers, since the owner and chief performer of a minstrel troupe could lay claim to the songs he performed.

Between 1882 and 1901, Bland lived in England and Scotland and toured throughout Europe, where he enjoyed tremendous popularity. He performed at Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria, and Prince Edward of Wales often attended his stage shows. Despite his success there, Bland gradually lost his fortune and returned to the United States in 1901, destitute and penniless. During the 20 years he had been in Europe, minstrel shows had gone out of style in the United States, and he was unable to write songs in the newly popular vaudeville style.

Despite his many achievements, Bland died in Philadelphia and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1939, his grave was found by American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and The Lions Club of Virginia dedicated and erected a gravestone for him in 1946. James Bland was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

Park Information

Directions to James A. Bland Playground

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