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In Cumberland, how will a planned landfill impact a historic Black school?

The Rev. Muriel Miller Branch stands in front of the Pine Grove School. The school has a sign mentioning its status as an endangered historical site
Scott Elmquist
VPM News Focal Point
The Rev. Muriel Miller Branch stands in front of the Pine Grove School. The school was named one of America’s most endangered historic spaces by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2021.

In Cumberland County, the Pine Grove School sits at the intersection of environmental concern, historic preservation and industrial development.

Some say a landfill planned to be built adjacent to the school will bring substantive financial benefit to the rural community. Others say it threatens the living legacy of Pine Grove, a 105-year-old Rosenwald School that served generations of Black students in the past and is now poised to become a cultural resource for students in the future.

Built in 1917, Pine Grove is one of about 380 Rosenwald Schools constructed in Virginia between 1917 and 1932 to educate Black students, according to an extensive architectural survey of the structures conducted by Preservation Virginia in partnership with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“My connection to the Pine Grove community is spiritual,” said the Rev. Muriel Miller Branch, a retired teacher and Pine Grove graduate. “This is the place that gave me that sense of being of who I am … [and] a sense of purpose. … This is more than a building.”

The schools take their name from philanthropist and onetime Sears, Roebuck and Co. President Julius Rosenwald, though the project was the brainchild of Booker T. Washington.

Enslaved at his birth on a Franklin County plantation, after emancipation education became the guiding light of Washington’s life. He graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) and became the founding president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. Through Rosenwald’s financial support, Washington also designed a system of schools that the National Trust for Historic Preservation called “the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.” 

“I think the Pine Grove School and similar Tuskegee-Rosenwald schools are so critically important because they are some of the first institutions that newly freed African Americans created,” said public historian Niya Bates, a Charlottesville native who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. “The first thing our communities did was to pool their resources together and build schools where their families could go and learn to read; literacy was the goal. And so, the Rosenwald schools, in particular, represent a moment in American history when Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee University came together to create a vision for Black rural America, a vision of uplift rooted in education for everybody.” 

Branch remembered her teacher, Mary E. Booker Gilliam, always urging her students to read and challenging them to improve their spelling.

“She had a few books; she had a little library. And when … you finished your work, she encouraged you to get a book from that little library,” Branch said. “That helped me pass the time. Some days, like Fridays, we had spelling bees. … We were really competitive, and it really made us learn how to spell.”

While the Rosenwald Fund donated $50 and architectural plans for Pine Grove’s construction ahead of its founding in 1917, Cumberland’s Black community raised $500 for the school — equivalent to more than $12,000 today. This was a notable sum and sacrifice for Cumberland’s small agricultural community of African Americans, who were then, like all Black Americans at the time, living under a government-sanctioned system of segregation and socioeconomic disempowerment.

In 2021, the Pine Grove School was named one of America’s most endangered historic spaces by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it’s featured in both the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. 

In early 2018, Branch, her family members and former students banded together to save Pine Grove when they learned that the school was up for auction. In previous decades, Branch said, former students and descendants of the community had saved the school from similar situations.

“Within a week, family had delivered, and we were able to pay close to $2,000 in back taxes,” she said “A month after that, we got a certified letter from Green Ridge saying that they were going to be installing a landfill adjacent to the school.” 

The Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility is a landfill proposed to be built on more than 1,100 acres in Cumberland. Up to 5,000 tons of waste could be trucked into the facility each day from anywhere within a 500-mile radius, excluding New York and New Jersey, if the landfill is constructed as planned.

The Green Ridge facility would join more than six dozen landfills currently open in Virginia and is slated to have a 30-year lifespan. The county board of supervisors approved a conditional-use permit for the facility on June 28, 2018. And since then, Green Ridge has garnered a measure of support from county leaders. The company said the landfill will net the county $74 million total, including a host fee averaging $2.5 million paid annually to Cumberland.

Green Ridge has also made significant financial contributions to Cumberland’s parks and recreation, and public school systems, including a $60,000 annual scholarship fund that prioritizes “minority students, low-income students and students who are the first generation in their family to pursue a post-secondary education program,” according to a press release

“We're delivering a check today for $100,000 to Cumberland County” to supplement the jurisdiction’s public safety budget, said Jerry Cifor, president and CEO of Green Ridge, in a July interview with VPM News. “I got a call from the county supervisor saying, ‘We could really use some help.’ And I asked him what he needed. And he said, ‘Will you fund a sheriff deputy position for the next two years?’ And I said, yes.” 

The company has invested about $16 million so far in the Green Ridge project, Cifor said.

Opposition to Green Ridge

Opponents of the landfill have said these purported economic benefits shouldn’t come at the expense of the area’s cultural history, including Black historic spaces like Pine Grove.

About 1,300 people have signed a petition to stop the landfill.

DiSheka Miller, who signed the petition, wrote, “This is my family's legacy and I want to preserve it.” Others cited health concerns as their reason for trying to block Green Ridge’s advancement; some characterized the project as an environmental justice issue.

Cifor disagreed.

“Environmental justice means you're not disproportionately picking on a community, because they're at a disadvantage. And to tell you the truth, most landfills, most waste energy plants, most nuclear plants, that's how they were sited. And I understand that … . I've been in the industry for 35 years. And I know how it was done for many, many years,” Cifor said. “And I can tell you … with a pure heart in this situation, that's not what we did. We … picked a diverse community, that fits the … demographic averages of Virginia.” 

Few people would volunteer to live near a trash dump, Cifor continued. 

In 2018, hunters discovered graves within the proposed project site, sparking concern about the landfill’s potential impact on the final resting places of people who likely were enslaved. An extensive lidar search proved the graves are there, Cifor confirmed, but they won’t be “anywhere close” to the actual landfill. And Green Ridge plans to install a barrier around the graves.

“Their mitigation is to build a little fence around [the graves],” Branch said. “We don't even know [how many graves there are]. And I get a little bit misty-eyed about those souls back there. Because they may very possibly be Miranda and Jack Agee, my great grandparents,” she said. “Give us the land where our ancestors are buried.”

Cifor said Green Ridge has tried to partner with Branch and Pine Grove supporters, offering an annual payment of $150,000 for the upkeep of the school. Branch said she and most Pine Grove supporters have rebuffed this apparent olive branch, because given the school’s history of African American community support and self-determination, the school’s future shouldn’t be dependent on a white-led corporation’s benevolence.

“[Pine Grove School graduates and supporters] have value,” Branch said. “We have a history that’s been buried, destroyed, lied about. And so, we need to do the research [and] know our story.”

Branch also criticized Green Ridges for not voluntarily submitting the landfill project to an environmental impact study. Cifor said the study is unnecessary.

“If the [Army] Corps of Engineers makes a determination we have to do an environmental impact study, then we will do an environmental impact study,” Cifor said. “I actually think it's a huge waste of resources … and I also think it's a manipulation. And I hate being manipulated more than anything else on the planet.”

There was an archeological study conducted at the proposed landfill site, required for permitting, but not an environmental impact study, which would require more input from community members who would be most impacted by the project.

“They did an archeological study … but didn’t talk to one Black person. A ‘good neighbor’ would have,” Branch said. 

At an August community listening session hosted by AMMD Pine Grove Project, an advocacy group Branch co-founded with her daughter Sonja Branch Wilson, about a dozen former students spoke about how they’d like to see the school preserved and transformed into a cultural resource like a museum or community center. Many of these people lived within the confines of segregation and survived the civil rights era. 

“This is important because it shows the generational legal barriers that were put up to not give us a separate-but-equal education,” one Pine Grove alumni said during the meeting. 

“I attended Pine Grove School from first grade through fifth grade,” said Michael Scales, whose mother was the last teacher at Pine Grove when it closed in 1964. She taught Michael and his sister Patricia alongside the other students; they didn’t catch any breaks because their mom was in charge. 

“I wasn’t constantly walking around saying, ‘Oh, that’s mama,’ you know. I was there to learn, and she was the teacher,” he said.

The siblings used the lessons instilled in them at Pine Grove throughout their lives: Michael Scales led a longtime career as a history and Spanish teacher. Patricia Scales became a lawyer and was elected as Cumberland County’s first Black and first female commonwealth’s attorney in 1995.

The school is a reminder of that past and can be a beacon leading the area toward a brighter future, some suggested. It is already a real-life education for Kelson Wilson, 13. Wilson is Branch’s grandson, Branch-Wilson’s son, and one of the Pine Grove School’s youngest supporters.

“When I go over there, I can just feel the history,” Wilson said of the old schoolhouse. He learned about Rosenwald Schools in fourth grade and told his parents about the lesson. They informed him that he was a direct descendent of a Rosenwald School graduate. 

“That's when I found out that my grandmother actually went to one of [the Rosenwald] schools, and I was just amazed. It just piqued my interest for history even more and more and more,” Wilson said, adding he’d like to see the school made into a museum that has “pictures all over the place.” Interactive exhibits about Pine Grove students’ experiences would “make sure people actually learn about it.”

The Green Ridge landfill application, submitted in September 2020, is under review by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The agency in May requested additional information from Green Ridge to continue the process, including clarification on several project aspects related to water conservation on site.

In July, Green Ridge asked DEQ to extend the time it had to submit the requested information until “fall 2022." Bryan Jones, an environmental specialist in DEQ’s Virginia Water Protection Program told VPM News on Oct. 5 that his department is still waiting to receive the additional information it requested from Green Ridge.

Green Ridge will also need to meet stringent requirements for the solid waste permit it is seeking from DEQ; that process is comprised of “several steps including an opportunity for the public to provide comments,” according to DEQ’s website

The AMMD Pine Grove Project plans to hold more community listening sessions to determine how to utilize $290,000 in grant funds it recently received from the National Park Service, part of a $16-million effort to preserve sites of Black civil rights history nationwide.

“We will find a way to change things for the better,” Branch said. 

Correction: A previous version of this articled incorrectly stated the year Patricia Scales was elected commonwealth's attorney. We have updated the story and apologize for the error.

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.
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