The writer believed that the playground, at 14th and Market streets, had been demolished to make way for the tennis courts. In fact, at least some of the courts were there from the beginning.
In an article on Sept. 24, 1922, the Wilmington Dispatch noted, “The tennis courts at the Pembroke Jones park are ready to go in commission.” Players were limited to three sets at a time.
In those days, however, there was a lot more to the playground than just tennis courts. The same Dispatch piece noted 10-foot concrete walks that local children were already using for skating, 50 park benches and a wading pool. Even though it was already late September, the unsigned article reported that some youngsters had already “donned their bathing suits and plunged in for a regular swim.”
A baseball field was due to be added to the complex, the article added.
The park had its beginnings in 1919, when the recently deceased millionaire philanthropist Pemboke Jones left the City of Wilmington $50,000 in his will for a public playground. A site was chosen, adjoining New Hanover High School (then under construction). Because of dissputes with local property owners, however, arbitration over the purchase price for real estate for the playgroiund dragged into 1921.
The wrought-iron arch bearing the name “Pembroke Jones Playground,” still visible from marketed street, was cast by the Wilmington Iron Works and erected in April 1925. According to architectural historian Tony Wrenn, it was part of a larger network of wrought-iron fencing that once surrounded the property.
The heyday for Pembroke Jones Playground seems to have extended from the 1920s until shortly after World War II. In 1940, the Wilmington Morning Star referred to it as “one of the most popular play areas in the city.”
Historian Susan Taylor Block recalled when the park was dotted with swings, see-saws and sliding boards. In the Jim Crow era, the facilities were largely limited to white childen, although black “nurses” regularly rolled their white charges’ strollers through the park.
(A photo of a snow-covered Pembroke Jones Playground appears in Block’s book “Wilmington Through the Lens of Louis T. Moore.”)
The park was the focus of a number of community activities. On the evening of Sept. 20, 1923, 50 Boy Scouts led a children’s “lantern parade” up Market Street from First Baptist Church to the playground. In 1924, Fred St. Onge, “the greatest trick bicyclist in the world,” led a bike safety workshop in the playground.
In 1925, the Daughters of the American Revolution planted a tree in the playground to commemorate George Washington’s 1791 visit to the city. In 1933 Rosalie Oliver was crowned May Queen there.
For many years, and as late as 1947, the playground was the site for the mass burning of the city’s discarded Christmas trees. J.E.L. “Hi Buddy” Wade, the city’s long-serving public works commissioner and sometime mayor, always happily presided over these affairs.
The playground seems to have been gradually encroached by the neighboring high school. In 1984, Tony Wrenn wrote, the former playground “is little more than an open field with tennis courts …”
Date posted: July 21, 2010
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