By Callie Hietala
Members of the Martinsville-Henry County community gathered in Fayette Square to celebrate unity on the final day of Black History Month.
In a Feb. 28 ceremony, new uptown banners were unveiled along both sides of Fayette Street in a gesture that may seem insignificant but carries great symbolic meaning.
“Today’s ceremony to celebrate the raising of Uptown banners on Fayette Street, our historically Black business district, provides us with an incredible opportunity to honor the contributions of African Americans to Uptown and the local economy while creating space for future growth, success, and collaboration,” said Natalie Hodge, immediate past president of Uptown Partnership’s board of directors.
She addressed a crowd that included city council members, members of Martinsville City Public Schools, representatives from the Harvest Foundation, Carter Bank and Trust, and faith leaders in the community. Her backdrop was a mural of the June German Ball.
Uptown Partnership Executive Director Kathy Deacon said the banners, installed by city employees with funding from the Harvest Foundation, serve as a visual representation of unifying Fayette Street into the uptown footprint.
The historical marker installed on Fayette proclaims the importance of the street to Martinsville’s Black community.
“Since the 19th century, Fayette Street has been a gateway to the business, social, and cultural life of African Americans here,” it states.
But for a long time, despite its proximity to the rest of Martinsville’s uptown, Fayette was largely ignored in the development of Uptown.
Faye Holland, who opened Holland Accounting & Tax Service at 106 Fayette Street in 1992, said the transformation of the street has been amazing to watch. Across the street from her business, which was just an empty field when she opened her doors, sits New College Institute’s Baldwin Building, named for Dr. Dana Baldwin, an icon of the Fayette community.
“We’ve always had to struggle for inclusiveness on Fayette Street,” Holland said. Even small things, like streetlights and Christmas wreaths, came to Fayette Street later than other areas of the uptown.
Now, those in positions of power are approaching the Fayette community and seeking to include them, Holland said, and “we really appreciate it. We appreciate the inclusiveness.”
City Manager Leon Towarnicki recalled that when he began working with the city, Uptown improvement projects focused on the area from Church Street to Clay Street and Main Street to Moss. “Fayette Street was not included initially in those improvements,” he said. Rather, it was added later due primarily to the continued growth of business in the Fayette corridor and in recognition of the importance of that corridor to Uptown as a whole.
“Fayette is now certainly an integral part and a viable component of Uptown Martinsville,” he said, adding that future development, including an apartment project scheduled to begin later this year, will “further solidify and cement the importance of the Fayette Street corridor in Uptown Martinsville.”
“Fayette is now certainly an integral part and a viable component of Uptown Martinsville,” Towarnicki said.
Mayor Kathy Lawson recalled that her first job as a teenager was at a confectionary just up the street from Fayette Square. Working there, she said she was able to meet some “truly amazing people” including the late Rev. R.T. Anderson, who “touched the lives of so many throughout our community.”
She recalled a number of businesses that used to line the street, some of which are still standing but many of which have long since disappeared.
“It is up to us today to unify our community and our history,” she said, calling on those gathered to create a program to “learn and to share” Martinsville’s history, including that of Fayette Street.
The Rev. Charles Whitfield, of First Baptist Church East Martinsville, spoke on behalf of the faith-based community and also the new minority business consortium “that empowers African American businesses in Martinsville and Henry County.”
He said he was appreciative the dedication ceremony “has become another unifying agent that helps to celebrate the talents of our forefathers.”
“Unifiers are not weaklings,” Whitfield said. “Unifiers are game-changers. Unifiers are history-makers, and there’s a rich African American history and a rich African American heritage” in Martinsville and Henry County and, in particular, on Fayette Street.