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June German Ball preserves part of community's heritage
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Curtis Millner (left), chairman of the Fayette Area Historical Initiative, welcomes guests to the June German Ball at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Saturday night. (Bulletin photo)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Mayor Kimble Reynolds Jr. is not old enough to remember the June German Balls of decades ago that brought big name entertainers to Martinsville, plus thousands of people to hear them perform.

Neither does the Rev. Tyler Millner Sr. remember the balls. Although he was living back then, his family "came from a rather strict religious tradition and we were not expected to be ball dancers," he recalled.

His older brothers went, though.

Now that the Fayette Area Historical Initiative (FAHI) has revived the annual event, both Reynolds and Millner cherished being able to attend Saturday's ball at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Starling Avenue.

"We want to make sure we preserve something ... that's been part of our community's heritage," Reynolds said.

Millner, pastor of Morning Star Holy Church, said he came to show support for FAHI and its efforts to help the community rediscover the importance of the Fayette Street area - a predominantly black neighborhood - to local heritage.

"Whenever you have an opportunity to celebrate the community, it's always a good thing," said Andy Parker, the Henry County Board of Supervisors' Reed Creek District representative now running for a state House of Delegates seat.

The ball culminated numerous weekend activities that were part of the June German Festival 2007.

The festival began Friday afternoon with the Today's Community Issues Forum, focusing on the economic development of the area, and the black community in particular, in Henry County and Martinsville. (See related story, 2-A.)

Saturday, a Field Fest was held in a large field at the corner of Fayette and Market streets where the uptown sports complex will be built. It featured a large number of inspirational speakers and musical performers.

One of the speakers was retired Air Force CMSgt. Grant S. Williams Sr., who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black pilots to serve in the U.S. military.

Noting that people of various races were at June German Festival activities, Williams said the festival helps people see that everybody should be treated with respect and given opportunities to share their unique talents.

Everyone should "treat each other as individuals and people of worth," said Williams, a Halifax County native now living in Hampton.

The Field Fest seemed geared more specifically toward African-American culture than did other festival events, he said.

It is important for everyone, not just black people, to know about African-American history, said Nathan Penn, an educational researcher who spoke during the Field Fest.

"History is the foundation of all of our education, and our education is the foundation of our future," Penn said.

The June German Ball featured performances by jazz, blues and rhythm-and-blues artists, including Jewel Brown of Houston, Texas, who spent eight years as lead vocalist for the late jazz musician Louis Armstrong.

Brown said she has attended the ball for the past three years since it was resurrected and it gets better year after year. Although she never got to attend the balls during their heyday many years ago, she noted that she has "heard a lot about them."�

She keeps coming back, she said, because Linda Strange-Dillard, executive director of FAHI, is "trying so hard to restore what used to be" a major local event and a prominent local neighborhood, "and I want to help her do that."�

Brown has visited the Fayette Street neighborhood each year that she has come to Martinsville. She has noticed the progress of revitalization efforts.

"It's gotten increasingly better," and she hopes to see the neighborhood improve even more, she said.

Millner said he hopes to see a "modest museum" established in the neighborhood to showcase local history and memorabilia, as well as accomplishments made by local black residents.


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