Benton Harbor is considering honoring one of its earliest black entrepreneurs by renaming the park

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BERRIEN COUNTY, Mich. (WNDU) – Benton Harbor City leaders are taking a step closer to renaming Broadway Park to honor one of the earliest known black leaders in the city.

The group Neighbors Organizing Against Racism previously honored June Woods by dedicating a float to him during the 2022 Juneteenth Parade.

Wood’s story not only gives us a glimpse into the history of black leaders in this area in the late 18th century, but also is an example of how that history remains relatively unknown to the people who live here.

“Here’s one with a gritty old image,” said Israeli House of David historian Brian Carroll after opening one of the few June Woods images he knows of.

If there’s information about some of Benton Harbor’s first black residents, Brian Carroll is the one who knows where to look.

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

“The earlier historical accounts of him made him this poor local black guy that everyone knew, but actually he was this entrepreneur and had this whole life before he came here,” Carroll said.

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

“He was also one of the founders of the local Baptist church that was established in the 1870s. It was one of the first two churches organized in Benton Harbor. He has interests in many local fruit farms in the area and will eventually start his own business when he’s in his 80s,” Carroll said.

These trees are something NOAR CEO Trenton Bowens says people may still be able to see today, especially maples. That’s one of the reasons he dedicated this year’s June 16 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 critical role in the greenhouse and nursery business in Southwest Michigan,” Bowens said.

Bowens says he hopes to cement Wood’s place in history by renaming Broadway Park in his honor. He says this will also serve to remind people of the importance of Woods and other black people in the development of Benton Harbor.

“You hear about the 1800s and 1860s and you hear about our white settlers in Benton Harbor. The Mortons and the Kloch family, but you never hear that black people came to Benton Harbor and that they were business owners and that it was a thriving black community. This story will not remain hidden for long,” he said.

The initiative still has to pass a committee on September 7 before moving on to a final reading before the full Council. Bowens says the final hurdle is expected at the next council meeting.

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