April 6, 2023

Pine Grove Elementary School: A Rural Black Community Rallies to Save Their Historic Schoolhouse

Send a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging them to require a thorough Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate all of the potential impacts to this historic school from the landfill

In 1954, just under seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional in public schools in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. For many Black elders who attended segregated schools as children, this historic decision is deeply personal. Muriel Branch, now 80, remembers going to Pine Grove Elementary School—located in Pine Grove, Virginia and one of the remaining Rosenwald Schools—like it was yesterday.

“Me and my siblings walked 3.5 miles one way to school in all kinds of weather,” Branch recalled. “We’d pick up our cousins and friends along the way. We all lived way off the dirt road, so when we got to those lanes we’d stop and have a call and response. We’d hooo-hooo-hooo-hooo and they’d respond to let us know they were on their way to the road to meet us. It was a lot of fun.”

While the school holds a special place in Branch’s and in the larger Pine Grove community’s memory, it is also a tribute to the importance of ensuring Black children received a quality education in the Jim Crow era. Today, Pine Grove is threatened by the proposed construction of a nearby mega-landfill, and was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2021. The community is fighting to preserve and protect this important landmark.

A group of people looking over the land next to Pine Grove Elementary.

photo by: Niya Bates

A group of University of Virginia students studying historic preservation visited Pine Grove. In this image, the class is viewing ruts that came from hunters coming on the property. Since this image was taken a gate has been added to restrict access and to protect the landscape.

Going to School in Pine Grove

Rosenwald Schools were born of a partnership between Dr. Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The pair built 5,357 state-of-the-art schools for Black children across the South from 1917 until 1932. About a third of rural Black children in the South were served by the schools.

Although these thousands of schools built by Washington and Rosenwald have been collectively called Rosenwald Schools, those preserving the school in Pine Grove have been calling them Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools to honor Washington’s input, as well as that of the Black communities who sustained the schools.

A group of teenagers reading as they stand against the wall during an event at Pine Grove Elementary.

photo by: Muriel Miller Branch

Select middle and high school students at a culminating event of the AMMD Pine Grove Project’s Partners in Philanthropy program. This program included a series of webinars plus curriculum development with two teachers about Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools and the Cumberland County connections. As a part of the grant funded project, the students received journals and t-shirts (designed by Sonja Branch Wilson) to commemorate their experience.

“It was Dr. Washington’s vision and his training at Tuskegee that made these buildings throughout the South possible,” says Sonja Branch-Wilson, Branch’s daughter and fellow Pine Grove historian.

Branch’s memories paint a picture of what the Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools looked like: “It was a two-room school and we only had one teacher,” Branch says. “We didn’t have indoor plumbing or central heat, so we had to bring in the water from the spring and make sure we kept the fire going in the potbelly stove all day.” Branch went on to say that your seating was determined by your grade, and that often there would be “serendipitous learning, because once you completed your assignment you were busy listening to the older children. So we were doing peer teaching before peer teaching became a buzzword in education.”

Preserving Pine Grove Elementary

Following the Brown v. Board decision in 1954, most of the Rosenwald Schools closed as states—some of whom were forced to comply—integrated their formerly white-only schools, eliminating the need for schools solely for Black students. Some Rosenwald Schools were repurposed for other uses, such as community centers, but the majority were demolished or fell into disrepair. Out of the more than 5,000 schools, it’s estimated that only 10 percent remain.

“Tuskegee-Rosenwald schools represent the dreams and aspirations of entire African American communities. Pine Grove Elementary continues to act as a symbol of hope and its community’s demand for a better future,” says Lawana Holland-Moore, director of fellowships and interpretive strategies of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Two people standing in front of Pine Grove Elementary where there is a sign about its designation as an Endangered Historic Place.

photo by: George Collier

Muriel Miller Branch and filmmaker and producer Tyler Kirby talk about Branch's experience as part of a series of alumni interviews taken by Departure Point Films.

Various people on ladders doing work to cover the windows as part of some repair work at Pine Grove Elementary.

photo by: Tyler Kirby

Volunteers at Pine Grove during a stabilization work day in March 2022. On ladders is Harold Young (L), Jody Lahendro (C), Gregory Keeton (R). George Collier and a Pine Grove alumnus are viewing from the ground.

Even though it was no longer being used as a school, Pine Grove Elementary remained very important to the community. Once the building was decommissioned as a school in 1964, it was used as a community center, including for voter registration and NAACP work, and has been saved twice by alumni of previous generations who wanted to keep the school as a gathering place.

Branch and Branch-Wilson are part of a group of Pine Grove alumni, descendants, and community members who want to preserve the school as a community center and expand it to include a museum that documents the significance of this place. Called the AMMD Pine Grove Project (named for Agee-Miller-Mayo-Dungy, the families who first began the work to preserve the school), the activists have worked tirelessly to save the school.

Now, beyond the damage done by time, another threat looms. In 2018, the community learned that construction of a large landfill was being proposed nearby. The original proposal would have located the disposal unit of the landfill, where trash is piled, within 1000 feet of Pine Grove Elementary, potentially making it visible from the school and potentially creating odor issues that might be seen and smelled from the school.

Although Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal have made changes to the proposed plan since 2018, the community still has questions about what its impact would be on Pine Grove Elementary if construction moves forward. As of February 2023, Green Ridge is still awaiting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

A few people looking over sign in sheets during a meeting at the New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia.

photo by: Muriel Miller Branch

During a March 2023 AMMD Pine Grove Project meeting, attendees look over some committee sign-up sheets for the community at the New Hope Baptist Church in Cartersville, Virginia.

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., a scientist, activist, and former executive director of the NAACP, helped coin the term “environmental racism” to explain the propensity of intentionally placing environmental hazards in communities of color. Citing a study from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, Chavis states in a piece for the Washington Post that Black communities are 75 percent more likely to be near hazardous waste facilities like the one proposed in Pine Grove, which does immeasurable damage to public health and the environment. For the communities near Pine Grove, the move by Green Ridge feels a part of this legacy.

The dedicated activists of the AMMD Pine Grove Project, which include alumni of the school and new generations whom they’ve inspired to take up the mantle, are fighting back. The activists have been vocal in the Army Corps of Engineers’ open comment periods and have helped ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

These efforts are working. The increased attention following Pine Grove’s listing on the National Trust’s 11 Most list has led to media coverage on the local, state, and national level, the activists receiving multiple grants, the erecting of a historic marker sign, multiple community-wide events, partnerships with the University of Virginia and Cumberland County Public Schools, and more. Perhaps more than ever, environmental racism is in the national limelight and those with lived experience—either firsthand or by hearing the stories of relatives, like Branch and Branch-Wilson—are leading the discussion.

A Future Museum at Pine Grove Elementary

While advocating to protect Pine Grove Elementary from the potential negative impacts of the proposed landfill, the activists have been simultaneously applying for grants to help fund the dream of turning the school into a museum, which extends beyond the building. “There are about 25 surviving alumni left and we need to hear their voices,” Branch-Wilson says.

Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, they were able to make repairs to site utilities, including water and electricity. The group is also looking to conduct an archeological study since 21 graves have been found on the property.

“We think it may be the enslaved community or people who died from the flu epidemic of 1918,” said Branch. “I don’t know where my great-grandparents are buried. They were enslaved by the people who owned that property, so it is very possible that they’re back there.”

The goal is to extend Pine Grove’s story beyond the four walls of the school and make it a dynamic, living museum, like a story park. From the outside, one might assume it must be difficult to do this preservation work not knowing whether the landfill will ultimately be constructed, but you’d be wrong.

On April 29, 2023, the AMMD Pine Grove Project will unveil a historic marker at Pine Grove Elementary, just one of many ways the group is ensuring the story and legacy of this building lives on. As Branch said, “The more publicity we get, the more people join our ranks, the more people help us fight and speak up. It’s been five years. The school was there before Green Ridge and it will be thereafter.”

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Mandy Shunnarah (they/them) is a writer who loves old things. When they're not writing their next book, they can often be found wandering around historic places like theatres, cemeteries, and author homes (usually with permission). Learn more at mandyshunnarah.com.

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