Protecting a Rosenwald School in Virginia

October 13, 2022
Community Partner-in-Residence focuses on African-American history and engagement in Cumberland County
Completed in 1917, Pine Grove Elementary School in Cumberland County, Virginia, was one of many schools built to educate African-American children across the South during the Jim Crow era when the doors of public schools were closed to non-white children.

The schools were envisioned by Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, and funded in part by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.

The Rosenwald Schools, as they came to be known, were transformative for many Black communities, but according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only 10-12 percent of the 5,357 schools remain today.

Pine Grove Elementary, closed in 1964 and in a state of disrepair, was at risk of being lost before family members in Cumberland County came together to purchase the building.

Led by historian Muriel Miller Branch, the group then established the Agee Miller Mayo Dungy (AMMD) Pine Grove Project, named in honor of their ancestral families. They wanted to protect and preserve the legacy of the Pine Grove School and celebrate the rich African American heritage of their community. The site would become a cultural center.

However, soon after the nonprofit was established, a new threat emerged.

"Within 6 months of the property being bought, we learned that Cumberland County Board of Supervisors was considering rezoning the area around the school to build a mega-landfill," said Stephanie Willett, AMMD Pine Grove Project community engagement lead.

If approved, the 1,200-acre landfill would threaten the historic character of the school and surrounding community and put residents at risk from major environmental hazards.

With so much important advocacy work ahead of her, Willett applied for the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement’s Community Partner-in-Residence (CPiR) Fellowship.

"The CPiR Fellowship provides space, time, and thought partnerships to Richmond nonprofit changemakers to explore creative solutions and innovative projects that they may not have the opportunity to fully consider within their daily work activities," said Derek Miller, assistant director of community relationships and community-based learning at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

Willett will spend one week a month working on campus through the fall semester.

"I want to be intentional about increasing our base of support locally," Willett said. "I want to talk to people to find out what their views are about their life in Cumberland. The local community played an important role in the Pine Grove School in the early twentieth century and should be invited into this current revitalization work."

When asked about what she is taking away from her experience, she shared, "First of all, that there is such a place that is intentional about civic engagement. And that there are resources here and people that can speak to this project from different angles."

Willett has been meeting with staff from the Spatial Analysis Lab to explore creating maps, faculty from many different disciplines whose expertise intersects with the work of the AMMD Pine Grove Project, and staff from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness who have been helping with the design and interpretation of interviews and surveys.

"Universities can be a partner because they value asking hard questions and offer a place to think," Willett said.