A Brief History of Harambee Park

It’s been an awful week for Harambee Park’s neighbors; a four-year-old boy was shot there on June 27. He has woken from his coma, and wants to go home, poor kid; may he recover quickly and completely. In the meantime, the Boston Globe has published a map of violent crimes committed around Harambee Park since 2008.

It isn’t always like this.

Franklin Field in 1925, photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Harambee Park was once Franklin Field, an adjunct to Franklin Park at the border of Dorchester and Mattapan. Both were named after Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) in anticipation of a bequest that never arrived, thanks to lawsuits over Franklin’s estate. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of several of Boston’s Emerald Necklace Parks, persuaded the City of Boston to buy 45.6-acre Franklin Field in 1894 because he wanted to keep certain unsavory activities out of Franklin Park, like… tennis. And baseball.

Olmsted had envisioned Franklin Park as a place where Bostonians could soothe their battered nerves, stretched taut by the endless stress of urban living, by strolling through quiet pastoral scenery. Grazing sheep were in; sports were out. Unfortunately, Boston’s nervous, stressed residents actually liked sports, and Olmsted couldn’t ignore them altogether. Franklin Field was the compromise solution. Bostonians could play their games, but they had to have them in the Field, not in Franklin Park itself.

Cyanotype of a Cricket Match in Franklin Field, courtesy of the Dorchester Historical Society (Dorchester Athenaeum)

As a consequence, Franklin Field became very, very popular after it opened in 1898. But mere baseball was not enough for the sport-starved Bostonians. By 1909, the Bay State Monthly praised Franklin Field:

“We will first stop at Franklin Field, the University playground of Boston…with its speedway, tennis courts, bowling green, and spaces for ball games it is said to be the largest and most complete field of the kind extant. It is well termed the University Playground for those players who have done team work in lesser grounds come here to compete with one another in large games. Thirty acres of this field are flooded for skating and other ice sports in the winter so that throughout the entire year it is patronized by people of varying ages from every part of greater Boston.”

Speedway at Franklin Field in 1914, courtesy of Dorchester Historical Society (Dorchester Athenaeum)

The Dorchester Gentlemen’s Driving Club built the Franklin Field Speedway. The Speedway served as a racing oval where single-seat horse carriage drivers (what, you expected NASCAR in 1911?) raced until 1920. The Driving Club’s records state that more than 15,000 people attended a single day of races there in 1912. I don’t know if that attendance was driven by appreciation for the skill displayed by the brave, strong drivers, or the opportunity to gamble.

From the 20’s and through the 1940’s and 50’s, Franklin Field served as a place for an unusual mix of local residents to meet and mingle. According to the Rappaport Institute’s “Heart of the City” site:

“In particular, the wall at Franklin Field was the place where disparate parts of the neighborhood connected, including Hasidic Jews, prostitutes, and adolescent boys. In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of Jews gathered during Jewish holidays at a wall around Franklin Field.”

“Connections” between Hasidic Jews, prostitutes, and adolescent boys? It all sounds like something out of a Philip Roth novel.

The neighborhood around Franklin Field changed over the next forty years. The story of how Boston’s Jewish community was coerced out of Dorchester—and African-Americans moved in—via despicable real estate practices like redlining, blockbusting, and discriminatory banking has been widely documented. In the early 1980’s, according to the Heart of the City, a consortium of residents led by the Franklin Field Corporation persuaded the City to rename the field Harambee Park; the Swahili word harambee means “pull together.”

Boundless Playground at Harambee Park

Today, Harambee Park is chock full of recreation fields, according to the City of Boston: a softball field, a Little League field, a field for football, lacrosse, or rugby, five basketball courts, five tennis courts (where the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club, the first African-American tennis club in the U.S., gives lessons and court space to more than 3,000 players a year), a street hockey rink, and a brand new “boundless playground” accessible to children of all physical abilities to play together; you can get to the high places via ramps, without climbing ladders or steps. Overhead lights allow for night games.

…which is all to say that Harambee Park is a vital community center, serving thousands of Bostonians the way that Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned: as a place for Bostonians to get exercise and have fun. No, it’s not enough to soothe the battered nerves of young gang members who are hot, who don’t have a job and have no way of getting one, whose neighborhoods have been ravaged by sub-prime mortgages, foreclosures, and other contemporary despicable real estate practices.

Contrary to Frederick Law Olmsted’s beliefs, there are some things parks can’t do. Alas.

  2 Replies to “A Brief History of Harambee Park”

  1. john doyle
    July 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Franklin Field…..1954-1955
    I played little league there in ’54 and ’55 for the Cubs and a great coach by the name of Henry. Our field was completely rebuilt for the ’55 season, fence and all. Some names I remember were Grant and Mickey McSwain, Donny Mish, and Johnny Harris and Donny Grubbs who along with myself, lived in the Franklin Hill project.
    Our whole team got a free ice cream after the final game of the season at a dairy joint on Talbot Avenue.
    Coach Kaplan (also lived in the project….and a great guy), walked with a limp and crutches I believe, organized our fund drive where we’d hold cans along the sidewalks and intersections on Blue Hill Ave and Morton Street, even at Mattapan Sq. When we were done, he brought us to a Jewish deli for lunch. We had a great time.
    By the way,our All Star team did a number on the All Star team from St. Peter’s/Ronan Park in ’55.

  2. Jason
    May 14, 2017 at 11:24 pm

    My father took me to watch the fireworks show in the field every 4th of July in late 1950s through early 1960s. The fireworks were launched one at a time from a single mortar tube housed in a metal barrel filled with sand.

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