Ernest T Attwell

Ernest T Attwell

Ernest T. Attwell extended the “quality as well as quantity” of recreational opportunities for minority groups in the first half of the 20th century. His effectiveness, felt at both the community and the national levels, came through his negotiations, recreation surveys, teachings, leadership, and trainings. He believed that “The welfare of any segment of a community should be a concern of all."1

Born in Harlem, New York in 1878, Ernest began working in the office of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company when he was just 14 years old. During the eight years he was employed there, he gained experience in business procedures and management. By 1900, he joined the Tuskegee Institute where he led the business department and coached football. Eventually Ernest became one of the faculty and on the governing body's executive committee. He also worked in cooperation with and served as president of the Alabama State Business League.2

During World War I, Ernest was an assistant to the food administrator of Alabama and so distinguished himself that the head of the U.S. Food Administration, Herbert Hoover, invited him to work at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. Hoover was known to carefully choose his national leaders3 and he recruited Ernest to lead the national campaign for wartime conservation of food among the African American population.

In March of 1919 Ernest was invited to join the Playground and Recreation Association of America (PRAA), later known as the National Recreation Association. The following year he began to lead the Association's Bureau of Colored Work, a position he held for the next 29 years. His mission was to encourage the participation in and the expansion of the recreation opportunities, facilities, and leadership available to African American citizens.

Ernest began by developing the temporary War Camp Community Service Centers into permanent recreation centers in 27 cities. His abilities for diplomacy, his understanding of the views of both the white and black races, his keen sense of humor, his concern for all peoples, and his skills in resolving issues were needed as he established recreation centers and trained African American recreation leaders. After nine years 75 more cities had African American recreation leaders and the number of such leaders increased from 35 to 400.4

Enlisting recreation workers and training them to be effective was a major focus for Ernest. He directed a five week intensive recreation leadership course throughout the country during a time when there were very few options for such training. He also consulted with universities as they established training courses and was on the faculty of the National Recreation School.

Even with these early gains, at the 1928 National Conference of Social Work, Ernest assessed the recreation situation among minorities: “Millions of colored children and adults of this racial group representing one tenth of our population have never felt the thrill of discovering a playground within their neighborhood; thousands more have not yet received the tremendous value of leisure-time guidance or trained leadership in play or recreational activities. The development of recreation for Negroes is in the 'covered wagon' stage.”5

It was said of Ernest that “he knew recreation and the mind and heart of the Negro” and with that understanding he commonly promoted community houses that were more than recreation centers.6 They often included a health center, library, nursery, trade school, welfare center, and employment agency. He felt that the purpose of the community houses was “to train youth to be citizens plus, to be willing always to go that second mile in order to serve humanity.” So effective was his vision, that occasionally Ernest's efforts yielded superior facilities for the African American community than the white community enjoyed in an area.7

Because Ernest conducted detailed surveys of any community before making recommendations, his suggestions were respected as “neither theoretical nor emotional.”8 He assessed such factors as the social conditions of a city, the needs for recreation, the additional needs of health care, housing, delinquency and unemployment reduction, and the effectiveness of existing professional recreation leadership. He often recommended the formation of a bi-racial Citizens Advisory Board or a Citizens Recreation Council to create and support local recreation plans.

One of the difficulties these local citizen councils had to overcome was convincing the “majority” group who controlled the tax moneys that there was wisdom in providing “wholesome” recreation programs for the “minority” citizens. In these negotiations Ernest often found it effective to quote President Theodore Roosevelt who declared, “This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”9

The 1920s were a time of “separate but equal” opportunities. Instead of looking for social equality, Ernest was working for equal opportunities and equal rights. He believed it was impossible for white institutions to adequately serve the needs of the African American community. In 1924 Ernest was invited to President Coolidge's National Conference on Outdoor Recreation held in Washington, D.C. He was elected to be a member of the Executive Council that was charged with inventorying national resources, determining how best to use the resources, and facilitating the exchange of new ideas in the recreation field.10

With his understanding of the African American social and recreational needs, Ernest was a delegate to President Hoover's Conference on Child Health and Protection in 1930, the chair of the Committee on Recreation and Leisure Time at the Conference on Fundamental Problems in Education of Negroes in 1934, and a leader in the National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth in 1939.11 By 1942 the National Recreation Association ceased to keep separate statistics on African American recreation and then discontinued the Bureau of Colored Work. Ernest continued to provide leadership in the Association until his death in 1949.12

Recognizing that Ernest was “a pioneer in the field of providing a more abundant life, an inspiration to workers in the recreation profession, and a man who left an indelible imprint upon hundreds of communities across the country,”13 he was inducted into the Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame in October of 1989.14

  • 1. Butler, George D. Pioneers in Public Recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company, 1965. p. 165.
  • 2. Hartsoe, Charlie E., M. Douglas Sanders, and Meredith Bridgers. Profiles in Leadership, Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 2009. p. 4.
  • 3. Burner, David. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. Easton Press, 1996. p. 101.
  • 4. Op.cit., Butler., p. 161.
  • 5. Op.cit., Butler., p. 161.
  • 6. Op.cit., Butler., p. 164.
  • 7. Op.cit., Butler., p. 162.
  • 8. Op.cit., Butler., p. 164.
  • 9. Op.cit., Butler., p. 165.
  • 10. “Speeches as President (1923-1928) At the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation.” Calvin Coolidge. < > 7 April 2013.
  • 11. Op.cit., Butler., pp. 166-167.
  • 12. Op.cit., Butler., p. 166.
  • 13. Op.cit., Butler., p. 160.
  • 14. Op.cit., Hartsoe., p. 4.