“If you have a vision, you can accomplish it with hard work.” This was the take away Reginald McWilliams Ball, IV, an 8th grader at Moss Bluff Middle School said he gained from researching and compiling his project for the recent Moss Bluff Middle School Social Studies Fair.
On February 28 he will present his project at the Regional Social Studies Fair. The subject of his project that garnered Best of Show and First Place honors? His great grandfather, Reginald McWilliams Ball, Sr.
“A man can accomplish anything in Lake Charles he desires if he is willing to work for it. There are no restrictions on the ambitious.”
These are the words of Reginald Ball, Sr., a pioneering funeral insurance salesman who made his way to Lake Charles in late 1940 from Winnfield, Louisiana, with hopes of building his own empire. And build an empire he did. From selling insurance and managing an ice cream shop, to opening a café, building the first trade school in the south for African-Americans returning home from World War II and operating an auditorium that offered top notch entertainment, he came to Lake Charles with great ambition. In a time period when the odds were stacked against him, Reginald Ball succeeded in building his own American dream and achieved his desire to “show the world you can’t always be on the receiving end. You have to give your time and effort as well as receive.”
We recently had an opportunity to visit with the Ball family and walked away inspired and blown away by their incredible story.
The fact that Ball found success during the Jim Crow era is what inspired young Reggie Ball to take a closer look at the history of his great grandfather. Ball’s story is one of perseverance, a charismatic personality and being the right places with the right people at the right time.
Ball was born to Lucion and Beatrice McWilliams Ball on April 19, 1918 and according to Ball’s son Gladwin Ball, at around 18 years old, Reginald owned two dance halls and a taxi cab service. “His daddy didn’t even own the house that they were living in.”
It was Ben Johnson, owner of Winnfield Colored Burial Association, who was said to dominate the funeral business, who would provide Ball with the opportunity to chase his own dream of entrepreneurship.
Around late 1940 Johnson sent Ball and another funeral insurance salesman, Shields Gilmore, out on the road to expand the business.
Research conducted by Joyce Sonnier, a member of the SWLA Genealogical Library staff, places Ball in Lake Charles around November or December of 1940. A 1941 City Directory reveals Ball and his wife Evelyn Varicewalker Ball rented a house on Mill Street.
While he was working to expand Mr. Johnson’s funeral business, he also managed an ice cream parlor outside of Pryce’s Pharmacy. It is said that he and Ulric Pryce were good friends and Ball learned how to make ice cream from the owners of Watson’s Ice Cream.
Described as the ultimate business man, Ball would move onto his next venture in the late 1940s. He purchased a tract of land on St. John Street and began building. Ball’s Drive Inn Café would become the first business on the site. He and Evelyn sold dinners out of the diner, but it was the chicken that Evelyn seasoned by taste that would put them on the map and become their signature item. This would eventually become known as the first location of Ball’s Fried Chick’n.
It was also at this time that Ball would find himself opening new doors at Chennault Air Base. Doors that would pave the way for his next venture. According to his sons, he was the manager of the Officer’s Club on base and would go on to run the NCO Club as well. Through this work he would go on to build many relationships that would lead him to his next project.
In 1947 his next venture would begin with the help of J.K. Haynes. The Lake Charles Vocational Institute was the only trade school in Louisiana dedicated to educating African-Americans returning home from World War II. The school opened at the corner of St. John and Nix (known today as Franklin) Street.
This school would produce the City’s first African-American brick layers, tile setters, mechanics, electricians and more. The true impacts of this are difficult to quantify, but it built a middle class for African-Americans and afforded opportunities for a number of new businesses in the area.
“It was very important because of the fact that it raised a lot of people out of poverty into the African-American middle class,” adds Gladwin.
After creating new opportunities for hundreds of community members, the trade school would close in the early to mid-1950s, but Ball didn’t let that stop him from moving onto his next project. He was known for traveling the state and booking dances so it only made sense that he would open his own auditorium right here at home.
A 1956 City Directory lists Ball’s Auditorium at 1230 St. John Street. The auditorium would become a part of the Chitlin’ Circuit and play host to a number of well-known acts in its heyday.
“It had a lot of famous people who went there,” comments Reggie Ball, IV. “Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, the Jackson 5.”
According to Gladwin, it was the high esteem his mother and father were held in that helped gain them access to the circuit.
“What put us in touch with a lot of them is when they were traveling around on the circuit, they didn’t have a place to stay. They couldn’t stay in regular hotels and motels because they weren’t allowed. So a lot of them would come to Lake Charles and stay with us at the house.”
Some of these house guests included Duke Ellington, Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin, the Jackson 5 and the Staples Singers.
Ball’s Auditorium became a place for everyone of all backgrounds to gather and enjoy food, music and fellowship.
“We were the only establishment in Lake Charles that did not discriminate and what made it better for us was that the auditorium not only had a ground floor, but also an upstairs that could seat about 200 people,” Gladwin Ball recalls. “The majority of the whites that were coming, especially when we had Fats Domino and Percy Sledge, they would flock to the place and most of them would sit upstairs, but they’d come down and dance with us and everything. We had some forward-thinking police officers at that time. Even though it was against the law, they never interfered.”
Ball’s Auditorium was about more than just musical performances and dances though. The Black Junior Deputy Program was established out of Balls’ Auditorium and countless meetings and other social events were held there during its lifetime.
Outside of his business interests, Ball was a man of the city who was involved in a number of civic programs including being the first African-American to gain a lifetime membership to the Chamber of Commerce. He also served on the Water Board and at one point attempted to bring the dream of Lake Charles Zoo to reality.
His impact was so large that his family wasn’t even aware of many of the things he had a part in until later in his life.
“Something that really gave us a lot of pride was the fact that meeting people that you probably only knew in passing or people that you didn’t know at all, they would come up and tell you what he did for them and how he helped them and made a pathway for them,” says Gladwin. Adding that he was a person that really tried to read Lake Charles and see what he could do to make it better.
“One thing I remember about him is that he was never satisfied just doing something,” Reginald Ball, II, adds. “He graduated from insurance to cooking, from there to the air base where he worked his way up to become the manager of the NCO Club and Officer’s Club. From there he went to training and logistics where they had the IBM computers. He always tried to improve on something. It wasn’t just one shot. Anything that interested him, he gave it his all.”
One constant message delivered by Ball’s family is that their father did not do all of this by himself.
“He paved the way for other people and they came on board with him to help bring other things to fruition,” stresses Gladwin.
What does Reginald Ball’s legacy mean for today’s generation though? Why does his success still matter in 2020?
According to great grandson Reggie Ball, IV, the story should serve as inspiration today. “It’s important because if he could do these things during segregation, there should be no excuses for people not to do it now.”
Today the family still operates two locations of Ball’s Fried Chick’n as well as a seasoning line. When asked if he plans to carry the family business into the next generation, young Reggie Ball says, “I want to play in the MLB, but if I don’t do that then I’ll run the business.”
While this is really only a brief look at the life and legacy of Reginald McWilliams Ball, it’s easy to see why it is important for us to share his story as one of our #LakeCharles #BlackHistoryHeroes.