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Revived May Day tradition touches a nostalgic note from Gainesville’s past

POSTED: May 1, 2011 12:53 a.m.
/Times file photo

Debutantes and their escorts dance the Waltz during last year's Newtown Florist Club Cotillion. The cotillion is now a part of the revived May Day celebration for Fair Street.

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May Day festivities traditionally have celebrated the beauty of spring blossoms, but for members of the Fair Street community, it’s about celebrating the living and breathing beauties among them.

In the 1950s, black residents would gather on the lawn of the then Fair Street School, to honor the girls from the community who had been selected to be the May Day queen and her court.

"Back then we had all kinds of activities; they even planted the May pole. It was so pretty," said Shirley Browner, an educator at what is now called Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School, 695 Fair St., Gainesville.

"Everything was white and green. It was just beautiful. Everybody would come out to participate."

As much as the community seemed to enjoy the annual celebration, for whatever reason, it stopped after 1954.

There wasn’t another until last year, when 32-year-old Qiana Keith, executive director of The Genesis Council, launched a campaign to breathe new life into the former tradition.

After seeing a picture of the old May Day celebrations hanging in the halls at Fair Street, Keith was inspired to learn more about it.

"When I saw it, I started asking some of the older people in the community about May Day (celebrations at Fair Street)," Keith said. "Learning all of this history made me want to bring it back alive and they (community leaders) were like, ‘Yes, of course.’"

"I was so happy when they brought it back," said Browner, who was selected as last year’s "Queen Mother."

For Keith, the Fair Street celebration reminded her of happy childhood memories.

"When I was a little girl, I went to Fair Street and I remember the pageants we used to have here," she said. "We used to get to ride Corvettes through town in a parade and all of southside Gainesville would be there."

"Just to support these 10 girls that were in this pageant, everyone would wake up early on a Saturday morning. I can still remember how good that made me feel."

The revival of the Fair Street May Day celebration was about making other people in the community feel good, too, and helping build their confidence and self-esteem.

"If you can recall a time when you were a little girl when one Saturday morning everyone came out to tell you how special you were, that’s going to be imbedded in your psyche," Keith said.

"I firmly believe self-esteem is the root of all evil, or good. If a girl’s self-esteem is lifted, then it’s going to be a solid foundation for her in the future.

"When you give a child something they can hold onto inside — Barack Obama calls it ‘hope’, my pastor calls it ‘faith’ — then later on as an adult they’ll be able to handle those decisions and choices they’ll have to make."

Although the celebration of yesteryear featured a royal court of schoolgirls, the modern version includes the young and the young-at-heart. The adults are queens, while the youth are princesses.

"Our May Day celebration is what you would call, ‘Whosoever will.’ We ask the churches to pick who they would like to have represent them, from babies all the way to grown women," Keith said.

"And (Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer) was so gracious as to allow a princess from each of the schools to be represented as well. They don’t raise money to be (on the court). It’s not about the person that can raise the most capital. We just want to represent women."

This year’s celebration is set for 11 a.m. Saturday, on the Fair Street lawn. It is sponsored by the Genesis Council, a project of the Newtown Florist Club.

"I wanted to do it Mother’s Day weekend because it’s like a celebration of women — something to bring daughters and mothers together," Keith said.

She says the event is just as much about highlighting positive images of black womanhood, as it is about rebuilding a collective community identity.

"I grew up in Gainesville and it kind of makes me sad (to see pictures from the old May Day celebrations), because I remember that (united) community and now I don’t see it anymore," Keith said.

"This is one of those activities that brings the community together. It gives us some pride in being black Americans. It’s for the community and for the little girls.

"It’s called collective efficacy, where it means what happens to one, happens to all. If we encourage them to be the women that we want them to be, standards will be raised."

Last year’s May Day event was significant because it was the first one in 56 years. This year’s celebration is also notable in that it will be the last May Day celebration before the school, built in 1937, will get a new look. The building is being razed this summer, with a new one being built on the same site. A $19 million budget has been set for the school’s reconstruction.

"Fair Street is so much a part of our history here in Gainesville. It was a black high school. We were football champions for the entire state of Georgia. Just to be able to recall that pride is awesome," Keith said.

"May Day is about building community pride and pride of our daughters. It’s about doing something for them that shows we care. Even if it is just one day.’

"We all love Christmas and it is just one day a year, but we look forward to it coming back all year long. Building these sorts of traditions and history gives a community an unshakable foundation."



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