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February 14, 2024 | In the Community

Boston Member Combines Art, History and Carpentry for a Community Project

For Ben Johnson, Jr., combining his carpentry skills with community work is almost baked into his DNA.

He’s the son of a recently retired member of Local 327 and great-grandson of a political pioneer among Black women in Boston and Massachusetts. It’s no surprise, then, that he recently attended a ribbon-cutting for a project he’s been working on at Malcom X Park in Roxbury.

At nights and on weekends in his kitchen and the hallway of his apartment building, Johnson has been cutting, carving and finishing pieces for 28 park benches that feature the names of notable Black Bostonians. It’s his part in a larger, community-driven project to improve the park space and basketball courts.

“This isn’t what we do on the job, but we can use our skills for our art and other things in the community,” Johnson said. “I was born and raised not far from here, in Dorchester. To work in the union and the community locally feels really good.”

As a gathering space with schools nearby, Johnson said he’s happy to hear people ask about the names now featured in the park. He said it has already provided opportunities for them to learn about the history of their community and some of the benefits the people highlighted on the benches provided for current generations.

Among the names Johnson carved is that of his great-grandmother, Doris Bunte. Bunte was the first Black woman elected to the Massachusetts legislature, serving twelve years in the House of Representatives before becoming the first Black woman to serve as head of the Boston Housing Authority.

“At the community meetings we had about park improvements, people wrote down names of people of significance that they thought should be featured,” he said. “It’s such an honor to be able to include her.”

Bunte passed in 2021 at the age of 87, so Johnson has fond memories of her, including a time when then-Mayor Marty Walsh responded to a request for a conversation by showing up at her door around breakfast time.

Though Johnson followed his dad into the union, he wasn’t always sure it was the right place for him. His interest in art, history and music drive him. But he’s content now to earn a good living and combine his interests in projects like the Malcolm X benches.

“Our union brings opportunity for a lot of different paths and I’m enjoying the one I’m on right now.”