by Jeanne Nicholson Siler
The dedication of the newest building–indeed, the showcase structure–for the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville was held on September 12, 2014. The three-story, state-of-the-art construction project at 191 Fayette Street, a newly built campus structure, was frequently referred to as “the building on the Baldwin Block.”
The moveable desks, writeable walls, and long-distance education media centers inside the twenty-first-century classrooms at NCI now grace property that stood vacant after a 1960s urban renewal effort took down a movie theater, drugstore, pharmacy, and twelve-bed hospital. Together with other critical commercial enterprises, Baldwin Block served the city’s African American residents and functioned as a community hub during an era when blacks were not always welcomed elsewhere.
(A full description of The Block can be found on the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ African American Historic Sites Database.)
The Living History Wall, just inside the main lobby, reinforces the historical significance of the new building’s location using photographs and historical exhibit panels created by the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI). FAHI, a grassroots organization serving Martinsville and Henry County, partnering with VFH, received a two-year grant from Martinsville’s Harvest Foundation in 2004 to collect, for the first time, a full history of the African American community of Martinsville, complete with a collection of oral history interviews, museum exhibits, and the publication Fayette Street: 1905-2005.
The community turnout for the new NCI building, assembled under an array of school banners, photographers, and well-wishers in a large brick courtyard, was perhaps even more impressive than the officials who arrived to cut the ribbon. As well it might be. Fayette Street, a two-mile stretch between the old Henry County Courthouse and the banks of the Smith River, remains home to many. Heads nodded in unison as the Reverend Thurman Echols noted in his invocation that the establishment of NCI on Fayette Street has been a “booster shot to the community.”
Kimble Reynolds, former mayor and current board chair of the New College Foundation, saluted the educational efforts of not only Dr. Dana Baldwin, whose early-twentieth-century visions for the black citizens of Martinsville ultimately created the enterprises that ended up bearing his name and that of his pharmacist brother Sam Baldwin, but also the once-segregated Albert Harris School farther west along Fayette Street. Reynolds said the shiny new glass and brick NCI building “stands out from every vantage point in Uptown.” He also expressed pride in what the building stands for: “the belief that by learning and working together, education is for every citizen.” The new classrooms are specially designed to enhance programs in advanced manufacturing, entrepreneurship, and health care technology.
“Our dark days are behind us. Ahead is something better for each of us in Martinsville and Henry County,” Kimble concluded, before turning the microphone over to others who in turn would sing the praises of the building, the assortment of donors of the almost $20 million required to build and furnish the “building on Baldwin Block,” and the community members of all ages who will benefit from the advanced educational opportunities at NCI.
Educational efforts also continue at 211 West Fayette Street, the new home of FAHI. Its museum and cultural center was dedicated in June 2013, in a building that was once the address of Imperial Savings and Loan. The FAHI museum is free and open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays and by appointment. Teachers, church groups, and scout troops regularly visit the museum to learn more about the African American experience in Martinsville, according to FAHI director Chauncey Adams.
VFH has long believed that communities that know and can tell their stories retain a sense of identity that allows investment and reinvestment to occur. Partnerships in that work can take time, even a decade, before the real benefits come to pass.