Benton Harbor, Michigan is located in Barrien County at 42.1° north and 86.4° west. The city has a population of about 12000. The city sits along the shore of Lake Michigan, on the northeastern bank of the Saint Joseph River. Benton Harbor is part of a larger 'metropolitan' area when combined with its neighbor to the south, Saint Joseph, Michigan.
The first white settler to what is now Benton Harbor was Eleazar Morton, who bought 160 acres of land from the government, and moved his family to the area in 1836. The land was good for agriculture, and soon settlers began planting fields. Locals banded together to build a mile-long canal into what is now downtown Benton Harbor. The head of this project was Sterne Brunson, who became so well known in the settlement that the town was named after him. The canal was completed in 1862, and the town soon became an important lake port.
The town was renamed to Benton Harbor, and was incorporated as a village in 1866. By the mid 1870's, there were over 300000 packages a day coming through the port at Benton Harbor. Saw mills sprung up along the canal, making the export of wood much easier. The town grew by leaps and bounds, and was given a city charter by the state of Michigan in 1891. The Benton Harbor Development Company was founded in 1905 to attract industry to the area. Tax incentives, discounted real estate, and financial aid soon brought heavy industry to the area, and the economy boomed. African-Americans migrated to Benton Harbor from the south, lured by the high wages being paid by local factories.
Benton Harbor also became a popular summer tourist spot in the late 19th century. Travelers from Chicago and other parts of the Midwest came to cottages and hotels along the lakeshore to spend the summer visiting the beaches and the local mineral baths. The Israelite House of David was founded in 1903 by Benjamin and Mary Purnell. Located on a stretch of land east of the city, the House of David soon became nationally known for the baseball team and amusement park, bringing in even more tourists.
By 1960, the industry in the area began to decline. Many residents left the area, and those that remained found themselves suffering from high unemployment rates. There soon became a visible divide between the poorer, mostly black residents of Benton Harbor, and the more upscale white neighborhoods of Saint Joseph.
Benton Harbor is 92% black, has a 25% unemployment rate, and is a city full of abandoned buildings and boarded-up storefronts. Neighboring Saint Joseph is 90% white, has an unemployment rate of 8%, and is full of trendy businesses. It is not hard to see where the animosity is coming from.
In 1991, a black teenager from Benton Harbor was found dead in Saint Joseph, resulting in accusations from both sides. In 1998, the Ku Klux Klan paraded at the county courthouse in Saint Joseph, with more police at the march than spectators.
Events came to a climax on June 16, 2003. Benton Harbor resident Terrance Shurn was killed after he lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a building. This occurred while Benton Township police were chasing him. Shurn was black, and the police that were chasing him were white.
Over 100 local residents gathered at the city commission meeting to protest Shurn's death. The commission dismissed the protestors concerns, and what was a mourning crowd soon became an angry crowd, and a riot began. The mob threw bottles and bricks at the police that were dispatched to disperse them. An abandoned building near the scene of the accident was burned to the ground, and several police cruisers were overturned and destroyed.
The rioting began anew the evening of June 17th, this time with an even more violent edge. One person was killed and several others were stabbed as the mob continued to set fire to buildings and cars. The mob also threw debris at fire crews responding to the structure fires, and the media that had gathered to cover the story. Ten people were arrested.
By the next evening, the governor of Michigan had declared a state of emergency, and dispatched the State Police. Several hundred police, complete with riot gear and tanks, enforced a 10pm to 5am curfew, which prevented further riots.
In an attempt to rejuvenate the area, the state government declared Benton Harbor an "enterprise zone" allowing the local government to offer more extreme incentives to cultivate both small and large business growth. While the economy of the area has improved, the residents of Benton Harbor have seen little improvement.
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