March 13, 2005
"The Fayette Street Project"
Documenting African-American Life in Martinsville Virginia and Henry County
By Christina Draper
The thumping beat of music from the jukebox at Edna's Cafe and Grill, a wave from the? hand of an Albert Harris High School classmate standing by Reynolds's Barber Shop and Pool Room, the call of a friend from Bannister's Cab Stand, images dancing across the screen at the picture show at the Rex Theatre. Icons for those who remember, but history to those not familiar with Baldwin's block located on the corner of Barton and Fayette Streets in Martinsville, Virginia. Baldwin's block was a lively place from the 1920's through the early 1960's.
Named for Dr. Dana O. Baldwin, the first African American physician to practice in the area, "The Block" stood as a gateway to the business, social, and cultural life of African Americans. Situated along Fayette Street beyond the block were historic churches, schools, homes of African-American community leaders, and the popular Paradise Inn. One long-time resident declared, "You can't beat Fayette Street for living".
Today one's attention is drawn to Fayette Street for different reasons. Many of the original buildings have been razed. An eerie quiet greets one who walks down "The Block". In this atmosphere of quiet the Fayette Area Historical Initiative was created to return Fayette Street to its former vibrancy.
The Virginia Foundation for Humanities and the Fayette Area Historical Initiative have formed a partnership, the goal of which is to use the humanities --local history in particular--as a vehicle to foster local community development, or re-development. This two-year effort is being supported by grants made to VFH by the Martinsville-based Harvest Foundation and by the Public Welfare Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the next year, FAHI and the VFH will work together to collect, preserve, and interpret the Fayette Street experience through oral histories, public forums, lectures, and special programs.
Important issues in African-American history will be addressed.? Cultural and social issues during Jim Crow, Segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement will be uncovered. The struggles of the African-American will be shared throughout the community. The humanities will help to bring these experiences to life.
?Recently, to compare the Fayette Street experience with another historic African American business and entertainment district, a photographic exhibit entitled "Jackson Ward" highlighted the neighborhood of Second or "2" Street in Richmond. Charles Bethea, Director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center delivered a lecture entitled "Jackson Ward Old and New" to accompany the exhibit in Martinsville.
Many similarities can be drawn between these two neighborhoods. During Bethea's lecture he shared the origin and development of the Museum and Cultural Center, the social and political influences of Jackson Ward on the Richmond community, and the revitalization of that area today.
Planning is underway for future programs on a wide range of topics, including:
How to discuss challenging historic issues.
How to protect and preserve old photographs.
How to collect African American folklore through which traditions are passed down through the generations.
Extensive oral history collection has also begun. Two exhibits are planned, one in each year of the project; and a teachers' institute in local history is being developed.
These programs are just the beginning. In 1970, Martinsville was designated an "All American City" by Look Magazine and the National League of Municipalities. Since, that time, the city, along with Henry County and the entire Southside Region of which they are a part have experienced declines in the furniture, textile, and tobacco industries which were the foundation of their economies.
In this project, history is being used to bring people together, to focus on aspects of the past that need to be remembered and preserved. All of us involved in the VFH/FAHI partnership anticipate that Martinsville will again be viewed as an "All American City" in which the heritage of all citizens is treasured and celebrated. This is a new kind of project for the VFH, and one that is quickly becoming a model for similar efforts in other parts of the state. For further information, contact Christina Draper, Director, African American Heritage in Virginia Program: 434-243-5528; or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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