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Ernest T. Attwell

1878 - 1949

Inducted October 1989

 "The welfare of any segment of a community should be a concern of all."
~Ernest T. Attwell

Ernest T. Attwell, affectionately known as “E.T.” to countless friends and colleagues, was born in New York City. His mother was a leader in social and charitable affairs. His father was rector of St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church, one of the largest and oldest churches in Harlem, NY. Following his early education in New York City and Brooklyn, Attwell worked eight years in the offi ce of the Southern Pacifi c Railroad Company, where he gained experience in business methods and management, which proved to be valuable throughout his life.

At the turn of the century, Attwell joined the staff at Tuskegee Institute, AL, where he was a close associate of Booker T. Washington. He was in charge of the Institute’s business department, coached football, and took a close personal interest in the students’ recreation. During the last 12 years at the Institute, Attwell served as a member of the faculty and of the executive council of the governing body. He was also responsible for extension work in cooperation with the Alabama State Business League, of which he was president for several years.

During World War I, Attwell served as assistant to the food administrator for the State of Alabama. His knowledge for organization soon caught the attention of the Honorable Herbert Hoover, who called him to Washington to assist the U.S. Food Administration on the regulation of nation-wide work among African-American people in the wartime conservation of food. By this time, Attwell’s perceptive and statesmanship in the field of interracial wellbeing had been noted by the National Recreation Association (NRA), and at the request of the Association joined its staff in March 1919.

National Community Recreation School for African Americans, Chicago, IL, 1925. Ernest Attwell Pictured second from the right in the front row. Colors of Recreation
1996 NRPA and Ethnic Minority Society and from Archives.

In July 1920, Attwell became field director of the Association’s Bureau of Colored Work, a title he held until his death in 1949. At the time, few cities provided recreation programs for African- Americans; in fact, such programs first emanated largely from centers established for military personnel by the War Camp Community Service. His first assignment was to transform these centers into permanent peacetime operations in 27 communities. His work required tact in dealing with organizational problems in such cities as Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Mobile. During the first nine years after he joined the Association’s staff, the number of cities reporting African-American leaders to the Recreation Yearbook increased from 28 to 103, and the number of such leaders from 35 to over 400. A few years later the Bureau of Colored Work reported: “There are at least a hundred communities developed during the past decade, which have as a part of their recreation program some organized recreation unit for colored people, which did not exist before.”

In visiting communities which have approached the recreation frontier in tolerant and considerate spirit, I find not so much a difference in the technical direction of wholesome recreation activities for colored people, as a difference in the problems to be faced in promoting available facilities and leadership. That these problems have been recognized and in many ways adjusted is indicated in the unusual growth of the available centers and playgrounds for colored groups in every section of the United States. –Ernest Attwell

The recruitment, training, and effective placement of qualified recreation leaders of his race ranked high among Attwell’s objectives and achievements. Much of his time was devoted to improving the quality of recreation leaders and to enlisting promising young people for service in this field. For many years the conduct of fiveweek schools for the training of leaders in recreation philosophy and techniques was a major feature of his yearly schedule. Held in various cities around the country, conducted by a staff from the National Recreation School, and directed by Attwell, the schools offered a comprehensive, intensive course at a minimum fee. They served a valuable purpose, because few college courses were then available, and the number of trained African-American recreation leaders was very small.

When President Coolidge called his famous National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, Attwell was invited as a delegate. From the 150 organizations represented, 60 delegates were selected as the Executive Council of the Conference. Attwell was selected to serve on this Council. Later, he also served as a member of President Hoover’s Conference on Child Health and Protection.

Attwell devoted his time and energy to the park and recreation movement It was because of his vision participants are treated equal without regard to race or social position. He was called “One of the truly great men of his generation, 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.” Attwell accomplished more than any other individual in securing quality recreation opportunities for minority groups in this country.

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • Attwell, E.T. (August, 1926). Recreation for colored America, The American City Magazine. 162-165.
  • Butler, G.D. (1965). Pioneers in public recreation. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing Company. Hartsoe, C. (2007). Building better communities: The story of the National Recreation Association (1906-1965). Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
  • National Recreation Association (September, 1949). Ernest Ten Eyck Attwell, Recreation. 307-309.
  • National Recreation Association (1951). The Attwell story. Ashburn, VA.


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