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Q&A: New Charlottesville chamber chair, Burks, discusses city’s racist past, bright future

Martin V. Burks III, director and manager of J.F. Bell Funeral Home, is the 2018 chairman of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

You’re a busy man; what drew you to get involved with the Chamber of Commerce?

I’ve been on the board about four years. In 2011, I was the Paul Goodloe McIntire citizenship awardee (the highest award the chamber hands out each year), and I wasn’t a member at that time. Back in the 1950s or 1960s, my wife’s father and uncle — who owned this funeral home, and a grocery store and a taxi company — wanted to join the chamber and they were told no. So I said, “Well, I’m not going to join.” But there have been lots of changes since then.

What sorts of changes convinced you?

Well, I was the second African-American to receive that award; Drewary Brown was the first. I saw that it was an organization that is beneficial. It’s a benefit for business people to be in an organization that promotes private enterprise and their member-businesses, and is concerned with quality of life in the greater Charlottesville community. They also have a Business Diversity Council where minorities come together and talk about various things and, in fact, they give out an award named after this funeral home, the John F. Bell Sr. Vanguard Award, to recognize those who promote diversity in the business community.

How many members do you have?

We have about 1,200 members and we’d like to expand that number. We’re looking at areas that we need to reach out to. We offer the best networking available. You meet people at the Chamber After Hours event and you talk about what you do, find out about what they do, and you figure out how you can help one another to grow your business.

I assume that African-American business is a growth area?

Oh, absolutely, but not only do we need to reach out to more African-American businesses, we need to offer education in starting businesses. Education needs to be a big thing we do at the chamber, and I don’t think we’ve met that goal.

What type of education do you see the chamber offering?

How to get started in business, cybersecurity … every time you turn around, somebody has breached a website. We had one seminar on that, but we need to have more, we need to talk about what’s relevant, be at the forefront of what we see as problems and how to fix it.

There are a lot of conversations going on about how to right some of the social inequalities in Charlottesville. Obviously, the whole history with the Robert E. Lee statue and the destruction of Vinegar Hill play into that. Let’s talk about that.

Let me tell you what happened. By a narrow margin, [the city voted] to destroy Vinegar Hill, and when it was destroyed, African-Americans who owned property or businesses had to attempt to relocate. But the problem with that is the amount of money they were given — if they were given any money — wasn’t enough to buy another home or to establish businesses in other locations. If they did, no longer was it in a centralized neighborhood. Folks didn’t really know where the new businesses were. There aren’t very many African-American businesses left today.

What kinds of initiatives do you think the chamber could take to fortify the African-American business community now?

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