When 77-year-old Muriel Miller Branch got word her former elementary school, Pine Grove School, might be sold because of unpaid taxes, she galvanized her extended family and raised the money in one week.
Their fight, however, was just beginning.
They soon learned the Cumberland County government had signed a multi-million dollar agreement to host a mega-landfill on 1200 acres adjacent to Pine Grove. “That’s when I went full force,” says Branch.
Branch is now part of a larger movement for environmental, racial and economic justice. “And I want you to know this movement involves a lot of people.” Pine Grove advocates recently acquired the legal backing of UVA Law School and support from UVA School of Medicine faculty.
In the early 20th century, the “Rosenwald schools movement” built over 5,000 schoolhouses for Black children across the U.S. South, including Pine Grove Elementary in 1917. “It was the brainchild of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute. And the whole idea was to have the community buy into building their own schools – financing, with the help of [the] Rosenwald Foundation, their own schools,” says Branch. Pine Grove, like other Rosenwald schools, was built “by the Black community, for the Black community.”
Branch and other volunteers successfully nominated Pine Grove School to the National Register of Historic Places. They’re also fundraising to restore the school and working to identify and protect Black burial sites under threat because of the proposed landfill.
“We have community people, we have former students who are very active now,” says Branch. “The enthusiasm has been lit. The fire has been lit.” Their grassroots advocacy has garnered national attention and bipartisan support in the Virginia General Assembly.
“We won’t be dismissed.”