Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back, the burden of the world.
Edwin Markham,“The Man with the Hoe”
Political poet and Staten Island resident Edwin Markham (1852-1940) was born Charles Edward Anson Markham on April 22, 1852 in Oregon City, Oregon to Elizabeth Winchell and Samuel Markham. He was descended from William Brewster (c.1566-1644), a leader of the Mayflower Expedition and Reverend-Elder of the Pilgrim’s Church at Plymouth, Massachusetts. When his father died, Markham, age five, moved with his mother to California. There he attended school and worked as a farm laborer until he began studying at California College in 1868. In 1872, Markham became a teacher in the San Francisco school system, then a principal. It was as a teacher, Markham later said, that he developed a social conscience.
“I have chosen not to speak the pleasant but the truth,” he wrote. Over the course of his life, Markham would write and speak out against child labor, advocate on behalf of impoverished Jews in Eastern Europe, and press for the creation of the state of Israel. Markham served as the principal of a school in Hayward, California, later becoming headmaster of the Tompkins Observation School of the University of California, a position he held for approximately ten years.
In 1899, Markham received notoriety when the San Francisco Examiner published “The Man with the Hoe,” a poem inspired by Jean-François Millet’s (1814-1875) painting, L'homme à la houe (1863). The painting depicts a farmer working the earth with a hoe in hand. Some criticized the poem as a radical work of socialism, but more praised it for its humanity. Shortly after the publishing of his poem, Markham relocated to New York City with his third wife and fellow writer, Anna Catherine Murphy.
The couple settled on Staten Island in 1909 at 92 Waters Avenue in Westerleigh, which was then known as Prohibition Park for its distinction as the headquarters of the National Prohibition Party. True to the ideals of his chosen community, Markham himself did not drink, and also refused electricity and telephones in his home. He chose to furnish the rooms with books, in such great numbers and unruly piles that it is said his wife sometimes formed them into tables and ate off of them. The Markham home attracted literary giants from around the city to salon-style gatherings on the first Sunday of each month. So important were these gatherings, that Markham scheduled his national speaking tours so that they would not interfere. He and his wife received such notables as Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), John Burroughs (1837-1921), and Kahlil Gibran (1833-1931). Markham also co-founded The Poetry Society of America with Ed Wheeler (1859-1922) in 1910.
When he died of pneumonia in March 1940, Markham left 15,000 books and 10,000 letters to the library of Wagner College. He was survived by his son, Virgil Markham (1899-1973), also a writer. A recipient of international awards and the author of several books, Edwin Markham urged readers to “come let us live the poetry that we sing.” Markham Junior High School, Markham Houses, and Markham Gardens are all named in his memory.
In 1947, the City of New York acquired the land for Markham Playground, bounded by Willow Road East, Houston Street, Forest Avenue, and the Martin Luther King Expressway, in connection with a proposed project to build a Brooklyn-Richmond Freight and Passenger Tunnel. Markham Intermediate School was built in 1959. The playground opened in 1962 as J.H.S. 51 Playground. In 1985, Commissioner Stern renamed it Markham Playground. The playground is jointly operated by Parks and the Board of Education.
Markham Playground’s facilities include benches and a red brick comfort station, basketball, handball, and bocce ball courts, a baseball diamond, and game tables. Play units and swings are designed for juniors and toddlers, with safety surfacing beneath them. Cobblestone treepits and old-fashioned streetlamps recall architectural elements of the past. The playground is enjoyed by students at the Edwin Markham School and members of the surrounding neighborhood.