March 1, 2015
Martinsville’s Baldwin Block/Fayette Street area was like the center of the universe for many local African-Americans in an era when racial segregation was common, according to former mayor Kimble Reynolds Jr.
Numerous establishments were there, including schools, churches, stores, restaurants, a hospital, medical and dental clinics, nightclubs, a theater and even a motel with a swimming pool. The area was the center of commerce and socialization for blacks in Martinsville-Henry County, and beyond when special events were held, those involved in a documentary about the area recalled at its first showing Friday night.
“Once Upon a Time: A Village on Fayette” premiered at the New College Institute (NCI) to roughly 100 invited guests, including ones interviewed in the documentary. The first public showing of the documentary is set for 4 p.m. today at the institute’s new building on the Baldwin Block uptown.
Area resident Susan Morten produced the documentary for the New College Foundation — NCI’s private fundraising arm — in partnership with the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI).
NCI sought to have the 30-minute video produced because it understands many people consider the Baldwin Block and nearby areas to be “hallowed ground,” said Associate Director/Chief Academic Officer Leanna Blevins. Her comment drew loud applause from the audience at the premiere.
The Baldwin Block, which borders Fayette, Market, West Church and Moss Streets, was developed by the late Dr. Dana O. Baldwin, Martinsville’s first black physician. It was a commercial center from the early 1900s to the 1960s and 1970s. By then, its buildings were razed, and the block was vacant until NCI’s new building, which opened last fall, was built.
Under segregation prevalent in the block’s heyday, blacks and whites lived in “two different societies,” Henry County School Board member Curtis Millner recalled in the documentary. He said he never received a chance to socialize with white people before he joined the military.
The Baldwin Block/Fayette Street area enabled blacks to socialize and do business in a relaxed, comfortable environment, according to Reynolds and others who commented in the video.
Nobody seems to recall why Baldwin, who ran a doctor’s office and drug store in the block named after him, came to Martinsville around 1910, said Reynolds, the documentary’s narrator.
But his influence on the community was tremendous. For instance, Baldwin helped recruit the Standard Garments Co., which provided blacks jobs that paid enough that they could educate their children well. That was at a time when most local African-Americans worked as sharecroppers or in tobacco factories that once were part of the local economy, the video mentions.
The documentary relates the history of the former Imperial Savings & Loan, which started in a room in a house before eventually moving into the Fayette Street building now occupied by FAHI. The financial institution gave loans to people who otherwise could not get them, the documentary recalls.
June German Balls, popular social events for the black community that drew big-name entertainers like Chuck Berry to Martinsville, are detailed. Alongside the entertainment, the events were “like a fair” where people could buy food, drinks and virtually anything they else wanted, local resident Bernice Mitchell said in the documentary.
The video also highlights how integration happened locally, including efforts by students at Martinsville High School and the former Carver High School to form one student body.
Along with Millner and Mitchell, those interviewed in the documentary include Dr. James C. Richardson Jr., the Rev. Tyler C. Millner, Gloria Hodge Hylton, Bill Vickers, Beverly Millner, Alberta Wilson, Jewell Jones, Marie Baldwin Hairston and Simon C. Spencer.
The history they recalled “shows how the neighborhood means so much for so many” people, Reynolds said.
“Their voices are the jewels” of the documentary, he said. “The history and the memories (they related) are priceless.”
Jean Wilson of Martinsville, who worked at Baldwin’s pharmacy before she went to college, was pleased with the quality of the documentary. She said the Baldwin Block/Fayette Street area’s history that it presents is “exactly the way I remember it.”
“We had a good time growing up on the west end” of Martinsville, Wilson said, noting it was a nice place to grow up.
“I learned a lot” from the video, said Rob Spilman, president and CEO of Bassett Furniture Industries and former chairman of NCI’s board. “It is a beautiful portrayal of an important part of our (local) history.”
NCI plans to use the documentary for educational purposes. Blevins said copies will be made available for sale later this year.
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