The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An educational haven for Black children during segregation makes endangered places list

Historic Pine Grove Elementary in Virginia is threatened by age and a proposal to build a huge landfill beside it, according to National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pine Grove Elementary, a Rosenwald-funded school during the Jim Crow era in Cumberland County, Va., is threatened by county plans to allow a landfill nearby. The school, which closed in 1964, is on the 2021 list of the 11 most endangered historic places. (Preservation Virginia)

Muriel Branch remembers her school in Cumberland County, Va., with great fondness — as a place of warmth, community and deep nurturing despite the cloak of Jim Crow that marked her childhood in the 1940s and ’50s.

And that’s why she’s trying to save Pine Grove Elementary — an effort that just got a boost from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has put the school 50 miles west of Richmond on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places of 2021.

Branch remembers the sun streaming through Pine Grove’s generous windows. The light reflected off the white walls of the classroom inside the little slate-roofed structure, adding to the cheery atmosphere, she said.

The parents always made sure that there was enough firewood to fuel the stove during the winter months, that the planked floors maintained a glossy shine. The roughly two dozen students were inculcated with a deep reverence for education, knowing that they were barely beyond the era when schooling for African Americans had been unattainable.

The inequalities — the long trek to school while White children took buses, the hand-me-down books — barely registered with Branch and her classmates, she said.

“We knew something was different but our parents and our teachers and the ministers knew who we were,” said Branch, 78, who attended the Cumberland County school from 1948 to 1954, when she finished seventh grade there. “The laws told you one thing, or tried to … but they could not restrict our spirits. It couldn’t kill that sense of worth and personhood that we had.”

Preserving the history of Pine Grove Elementary, one of 382 schools funded in part by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to educate African American children in Virginia, is proving to be a greater challenge for Branch and the other 45 living alumni of the school.

Like many of the roughly 126 remaining Rosenwald schools in the state, Pine Grove has long been in need of money to restore it to its former glory. But then in 2018 came what alumni, as well as state and national preservationists, perceive as an existential threat: a proposal to erect a giant landfill on property adjacent to the school.

That prospect — along with a passionate effort to preserve the school led by Branch and other alumni — was enough to catapult Pine Grove onto the 2021 list of most endangered places in the United States, released Thursday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

A site in Montgomery County, Md., has also made the list: the Moses Morningstar Cemetery, part of a historical African American community in the Cabin John area that was divided by the construction of Interstate 495, is threatened by plans to widen the highway.

The inclusion on this list “is a giant step. It opens the eyes to the rest of America,” said Montgomery Crawford, 68, whose grandfather was buried at the cemetery, which he has been fighting to preserve. “There are individuals walking around blindfolded, like our history does not exist.”

Of the 11 sites, seven this year focused on preserving Black history. The sites also include historic Native American and Chinese places.

Historic sites associated with communities of color “have been neglected and left out of what has been preserved,” said the Trust’s chief preservation officer, Katherine Malone-France. “The endangered list is an incredibly important tool for advancing justice and equity.”

“A place like Pine Grove can tell us incredible stories of both structural racism in the country and the ways in which people fought back against that,” she said.

'My community formation’

Growing up as one of four siblings in a Black farming family, Branch recalls older members of the community talking about a great “hunger for education” that inspired children to do math problems in the dirt before Pine Grove Elementary was built.

Then in 1917 the Julius Rosenwald Fund started by the Sears Roebuck magnate helped pay for the construction of Pine Grove, as part of a drive encouraged by Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute to support the education of African Americans across the rural South. Black residents of Cumberland County, Va., had petitioned for a school, raised $500 toward its construction and helped build it, Branch said.

Branch, who now lives in Richmond but whose family still owns land in Cumberland County, recalls the devotion with which teachers delivered lessons, with the young ones learning more by osmosis as their older classmates received instruction nearby.

The second room in the school, separated by a sliding divider, was used for storing firewood and water, which students would retrieve with buckets from a nearby spring, where they also washed their hands after frolicking outdoors. The girls created a playhouse on one side of the school, Branch recalled, while the boys chased each other on the other side. Manners and respect for self and others were paramount.

Pine Grove “was my community formation,” Branch said. “The school was clean and bright and buzzing with activity all day. We all got to know each other, we got to learn from each other.”

There was “an extraordinary amount of pride,” she said.

Surrounded by towering oaks, Pine Grove continued to withstand the elements after it was closed in 1964 when the county desegregated its schools, through long stretches of neglect. The building is weathered, peeled white paint revealing gray boards beneath, yet it remains structurally sound.

“We’ve seen a lot of these schools in really poor condition, but Pine Grove is not one of them. It still has its original windows,” said Sonja Ingram, a preservation field manager for Preservation Virginia, which has been working with Branch’s group, the Agee-Miller-Mayo-Dungy Pine Grove Project, to preserve the school

Despite its sturdiness, the school “is probably the most threatened in the state” because of the proposed mega-landfill, said Ingram, who along with alumni and preservationists are also concerned about the effect on the surrounding African American community.

In 2018, the county Board of Supervisors approved the 1200-acre Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, which could accept thousands of tons of waste per day. With few sources of revenue, the county, with barely 10,000 residents, views the landfill as a potential boon.

The company that is building the landfill has offered to contribute to the school’s preservation, but Branch’s group has declined the offer. Public meetings about the project have been jam packed, with most opposed, including longtime civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis Jr., who criticized the project as environmental racism.

No matter what the company offers, “How will we attract visitors to a historic site with a mountain of trash staring at it?” Branch said.

“We know it’s a historical trend that they bring these toxic industries into communities that don’t have the wherewithal to fight,” she said. “And we really don’t. We are outgunned. At the same time, I think they underestimate our love of community and our pride in our history and our culture and what our ancestors were able to build out of nothing. ”

The Army Corps of Engineers is deciding whether an environmental impact study is needed. The state Department of Environmental Quality must also approve the plan, which could take until 2022.

Branch, a retired public schools library media specialist, first became involved in saving her alma mater when the school was under threat of auction due to delinquent taxes.

With the taxes paid off, the AMMD Pine Grove Project now envisions transforming the tiny school into a cultural center where visitors can also learn about the role Pine Grove and schools like it played in American history.

And thus the inclusion of Pine Grove on the Trust’s most endangered list is cause for celebration, she said.

Late Thursday morning, jubilant alumni and preservationists threw up a giant blue-and-white banner on the school grounds announcing their new distinction and partied outside the little building.

They expected that the national designation would help them raise funds and win grants to sustain the school over the long haul and make their vision a reality. Maybe, too, the state would now better hear their objections.

“It reminds me of Hagar in the biblical story,” Branch, who is also an ordained minister, said. “She was at her wit’s end and just didn’t feel like she was being seen in the wilderness. And then she realized that God saw her. That is the way we feel, like someone sees us and they value who we are.”

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