Harold L. Wood, the first black member of the legislative body of Westchester County, N.Y., and later the first black State Supreme Court justice in the county, died on Thursday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Lavern Jill Wood.
A Republican lawyer, Justice Wood was elected to the county’s 45-member Board of Supervisors in 1958, representing Mount Vernon, a city of about 75,000. At the time, the New Haven Railroad tracks were becoming a racial dividing line, with blacks, who had largely migrated from the South, living south of the tracks, and whites, many of whom had arrived from New York City, settling north of them.
“We call this the wonderful world of Westchester, so let’s make it so,” Justice Wood exhorted the board in 1967 when he bluntly warned of racial turmoil and pleaded for better housing and job opportunities for blacks, who then accounted for 10 percent of the county’s population.
Like many American cities that summer, Mount Vernon did become a scene of racial unrest. “Mount Vernon has rows and rows of substandard tenements,” Justice Wood said after touring a site of looting. “This is the root of the disturbances.”
After serving as a supervisor for a decade, he became the first black to sit on the Family Court, the County Court and, in 1974, the State Supreme Court in Westchester. Re-elected with Republican, Democratic and Conservative Party endorsements, Justice Wood retired in 1996.
The grandson of slaves, Harold Leroy Wood was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on Dec. 6, 1919. His father, James, owned a restaurant and was in the trucking business. His mother, the former Harriet Thompson, was a nurse.
Justice Wood grew up in Ossining, N.Y., received a degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and, as a first lieutenant, was stationed at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama during World War II.
He graduated from Cornell Law School on the G.I. Bill and received a master of laws degree from New York University. He then opened a law practice in Mount Vernon to serve the city’s growing black population.
A former chairman of the Mount Vernon branch of the N.A.A.C.P., Justice Wood also served on the Mount Vernon City Council before becoming a judge.
His marriage to the former Thelma Cheatham ended with her death. In addition to his daughter, who is known as Jill, Justice Wood is survived by the couple’s sons, Gregory and Dean, and three grandchildren.