Benton Harbor considering honoring one of it’s earliest Black entrepreneurs with park renaming

Updated: Sep. 7, 2022 at 6:20 PM EDT
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BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. (WNDU) - Benton Harbor City leaders are moving one step closer to renaming Broadway Park to honor one of the earliest known Black leaders in the town.

The group, Neighbors Organizing Against Racism, already honored June Woods by dedicating a float to him during 2022′s Juneteenth parade.

Wood’s story not only gives us a glimpse into the history of Black people as leaders in this area in the late 1800s, but it’s also an example of how that history remains pretty unkown to the people who live here.

“Here’s one that has a grainy old picture,” said Israelite House of David historian Brian Carroll after opening one of the few pictures he knows of June Woods.

If there’s any info out there on some of Benton Harbor’s earliest Black residents, Brian Carroll is the one who knows where to look.

He’s spent time finding out who June Woods was based on old newspaper articles and documents he’s compiled while working at the Israelite House of David.

“The earlier historical accounts of him made him out to be this poor local Black guy who everybody knew, but in fact he was this entrepreneur and had this whole life before he came here,” Carroll said.

Born into slavery in 1805, according to Carroll, Woods escaped the south during the Civil War and made his way to Southwest Michigan. The rest of his life is something Carroll calls a remarkable second act.

“He was also a founder of the local Baptist church that was founded in the 1870s. It was one of the first two churches founded in Benton Harbor. He’s involved in a lot of the local fruit farms in the area and eventually starts his own business when he’s in his 80′s,” Carroll said.

Those trees are something NOAR executive director Trenton Bowens says folks might still be able to see today, especially maples. It’s one of the reasons he dedicated this year’s Juneteenth float to Woods.

“He didn’t just plant trees in Benton Harbor. It was St. Joe, Hagar Shores, Eau Claire--fruit trees and everything. So he played a pivotal role in the greenhouse and nursery business in Southwest Michigan,” Bowens said.

Bowens says he hopes to enshrine Woods’ place in history by renaming Broadway Park in his honor. He says this will also serve to remind folks how integral Woods and other Black people were in Benton Harbor’s development.

“You hear about the 1800s and the 1860s and you hear about our white settlers in Benton Harbor. The Mortons and the Kloch family, but you never hear about the Blacks coming into Benton Harbor and how they were business owners and it was a thriving Black community. This history will not be hidden like it was this long,” he said.

The initiative still needs to pass one committee on Sept. 7th before moving on to a final reading in front of the full council. Bowens says that the final hurdle is expected at the following council meeting.