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Documentary aims to preserve history of what happened to Elkhart's Benham West area

Undated photo of people at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Elkhart's Benham West area.
Provided by Arthur Fisher
Undated photo of people at the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Elkhart's Benham West area.

Today in Elkhart, south of the railroad tracks and west of Benham Avenue, at the point where Martin Luther King Jr. Drive turns south onto Sixth Street, there’s not much to see.

With the exception of an auto body shop at the corner, the area is mostly vacant ground. But if you look at the street, you’ll see brick pavers under the patchy surface.

The brick pavers are the last remnants of what was once a thriving African American community called Benham West. Less formally it was known as “the Village.” There were stores called Spotville’s and Looties. There was the Booker T. Washington Community Center. Webb’s Barbeque. Les Slayton’s gas station. Fox Liquor Store. The Cozy Corner Tavern.

All Black-owned business.

There were lots of houses, many of them well-kept. There were social clubs and churches. There was South Side School.

But from 1973 to 1981 , most of it was demolished in the name of the federal Urban Renewal program. Originally, as the city sought to persuade property owners to sell, there were promises of redevelopment for the area. New homes. A park.

Gradually the property owners agreed to sell. The buildings were demolished. But the redevelopment never came.

Flash forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020, when Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary hosted an event called “Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart.”

About 175 people attended, and about 80 stayed after the panel discussion, including many who shared their fond memories of growing up in Benham West. The seminary realized their oral history needed to be preserved.

They made a documentary film, “What Happened at Benham West: African American Stories of Community, Displacement and Hope,” and there will also be a book, possibly released this fall.

On Tuesday night, to celebrate Juneteenth, the documentary was screened at Ruthmere Museum.

Afterward, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, one of two creative directors of the film, recalled how the project started.

“One of the strong things was our stories are being lost. The elders are dying out,” Alexis said. “Nobody remembers the South Side School. Like, all of this is going to be gone when we pass on. Out of that, people in the community were like, what’s next? What’s the next thing? We can’t just let this be shared and then go away.”

Alexis said it took about three years to finish the film. People who lived in the area were interviewed. The filmmakers stitched together what little video and still photos they could find. The residents’ stories were verified with many hours of research.

“It’s been like an unexpected journey but the elders that we’ve showed it to, they’re very appreciative of it. We’ve gotten very significant, strong feedback that it’s important that we do this. It is stunning how many people say they didn’t know this happened, people who have lived in Elkhart.”

The Benham West elders interviewed for the film included the Rev. Plez Lovelady, who said there was much more than bricks and mortar lost when the Village was demolished.

“You know when things would happen we could come together in the different local churches and we could talk about some of the things and we could go to the next level,” Lovelady says in the film. “That identity was gone and it has never returned. It has never returned. There is totally an absolute difference between yesterday and today. It’s hard even to put into words some of the things that we tore down.

“You see, people need to understand, they didn’t just tear down a building. They tore down hope. They tore down dreams.”

Ron Davis remembers the Village. He’s been president of Elkhart County’s NAACP chapter for over 30 years. He and his wife came to the Ruthmere screening.

“I think people need to know what went on in Benham West, and what was supposed to happen that didn’t happen,” Davis told WVPE after the screening. “I think the changes in administration, they had different ideas on what the plans should be to utilize the houses that was purchased and the land.”

Alexis says there aren’t yet plans to stream the documentary or to release it on the internet, but that’s a possibility. She and her co-creative director, Jamie Pitts, an associate professor at the seminary and whose research was instrumental for the project, plan to hold more public screenings upon request. To learn more about Benham West, and to be notified of future public screenings, visit

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).