William McCray Playground is a war memorial playground located at the borders between East and West Harlem, 45 W 138 St. With the support of the Police Department and the War Memorial Fund, the city built this playground and opened it on July 15, 1934. The establishment of the playground was a part of New Deal Projects (1934-43), which included expanding the number of playgrounds in the city. The war memorial playgrounds, including William McCray Playground, were dedicated in an official ceremony after the expansion. After its first opening, the playground continued to expand in 1989 and 1992 and doubled its size of the original space. In 1994, the city installed more play equipment, benches, and game tables, which each of them is marked with a commemorative tablet to honor the soldiers who sacrificed themselves in the war.
William McCray Playground is a memorial playground where memorates William McCray (1898-1918), who fought in World War I. He was born and raised in New York City and enlisted in the 15th Regiment, New York Guard. The 15th New York National Guard is now formerly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” The Harlem Hell Fighters were the regiment consisted of only African Americans, led by mainly of white officers. They were redesignated as the 369th Regiment when they arrived in France in 1917. The Harlem Hellfighters joined the 16th and 161st Divisions of French Army after they arrived in France, and fought bravely in several battles including Champagne-Marne Defensive, and Meuse-Argonne Offensive. William McCray fought hard in these combats and attained the rank of corporal, but got killed in a local infantry attack in the Champagne Sector in 1918.
When the United States decided to participate in World War I, some of African Americans refused to fight in the war. Many African Americans, however, saw joining the war as a chance to gain recognition; they urged themselves to fight for democracy and 2.3 million African Americans registered for the draft. The Harlem Hellfighters, however, spent 191 days in trenches, which is the longest duration amongst any other American unit. Some of African American soldiers even served in cumbersome and dangerous construction missions and dedicated themselves for the victory of the Allied Powers. Although they served in numerous wars and battles, and were treated equally by the French army, the Harlem Hellfighters were not well-received back in the United States. At that time, racism was still prevalent among Americans, which made the African American soldiers not respected. Besides Harlem, the African American soldiers were not celebrated.
The construction of William McCray Playground, however, symbolizes the change in the attitude towards the brave Harlem Hellfighters who courageously fought in many combats. It was built during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who sought development in poor urban areas such as Harlem. The activation of New Deal Policy in Harlem and establishment of memorial parks were welcomed by African Americans; notably, the installing of William McCray Playground marks that African Americans had finally received recognition from the public.
Not only the construction of memorial parks and playgrounds to celebrate brave African American soldiers, but even President Obama honored one of the ignored African American soldiers who fought in the World War. Now, William McCray Playground serves as a place to rest and play basketball for people in Harlem, and a site that represents the historical and cultural significance of African Americans’ sacrifice in the war.