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Plans for Landfill Threaten Historic School

RadioIQ

During the Jim Crow era, when public schools in Virginia refused to educate African Americans, a prominent black educator – Booker T. Washington -- joined a northern philanthropist -- Julius Rosenwald -- to help build more than 5,000 schools in 15 southern states. 

In Virginia’s Cumberland County – west of Richmond – a rural community called Pine Grove provided land, money and labor for one so-called Rosenwald school that is now threatened by plans for a massive garbage dump.

The Pine Grove School is more than 100 years old – a modest wood-frame building, white paint peeling from its walls, but when Michael Scales attended from 1959 to 1964, it was the starting point for success.

“If there was a way for African Americans to advance, it would have to be through education.  That was vital,” he explains.

He would go on to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in college – to teach history and Spanish.  

For Alfred Austin it was the launching pad for a career in the corporate world – managing a major insurance company.

“I went from being a trainee to being a senior executive vice president for Aetna," he says. "I was competing against people that had gone to Harvard and Yale and Wharton and Princeton, and I never felt that my education was insufficient.”

Credit RadioIQ
Michael Scales with photos of his mother and grandmother who taught at Pine Grove.

And for Muriel Branch, author of nine books about African American and women’s history, Pine Grove was proof that people of color could move up the social ladder in this country.

“My grandfather taught himself to do math in the dirt,” she recalled.

Before getting two college degrees, she was an award-winning public speaker thanks to her teacher at Pine Grove.

“ I won the district.  I went to the state.  I won the state.  That was all because a teacher believed in me.”

Credit RadioIQ
Left to right, front row: Muriel Branch, her daughter Sonja Branch-Wilson and Laurie Halligan. Top row: Michael Scales, Kevin Halligan and Alfred Austin.

When public schools in Virginia were integrated, Pine Grove closed, but Alfred Austin will never forget the invaluable gift he got there – a sense of self-confidence that would last a lifetime.

“If you don’t have the self-esteem necessary to compete, you’re lost, and the community  gave us that, despite the fact that we couldn’t go in the restaurant or drink at the fountain and whatever.  If it hadn’t been for that, we would have all be failures.”

Since 1964, Pine Grove has served as a community center – a place where kids and adults to go to play games, share meals and memories, so it came as a terrible shock when they learned that a New York-based company, County Waste, planned to operate a 12-hundred acre garbage dump across the street. The board of supervisors in Cumberland County was excited by the prospect of more tax revenue for its schools, and Pine Grove alum Muriel Branch understood that benefit. 

Credit RadioIQ
The view from Pine Grove School could someday be a garbage dump if opponents are not successful in stopping a project proposed by New York-based County Waste.

“But not at our expense again!" she says. "These dumps, these industries are sighted because they believe people of color and poor people don’t have a voice.  We’ll roll over and play dead.  Well this time that didn’t happen.”

Unhappy neighbors like Laurie and Kevin Halligan joined more than a hundred others at board meetings. They worried about the smell, the traffic and possible damage to wells.

“It is a landfill that will bring in 3,500 tons of trash every day," says Kevin Halligan.  "The projected height of the landfill we just found out recently is 690 feet, which is higher than the Washington Monument by 190 feet.”

And this month the University of Virginia School of law joined the fight, arguing a great deal more environmental study was needed by the state before this project could go forward.  Proponents say County Waste can minimize any risk to the air and water of Cumberland County, but residents of the Pine Grove neighborhood say there’s no mitigating the destruction of their history. 

Earlier this month, Preservation Virginia added the Pine Grove School and community to its list of endangered historic places.

Editor's note: Following the broadcast of this story, a spokesman for County Waste indicated the landfill would be less than 400 feet tall, and while the entire site is 1,200 acres, only 240 would be used for trash disposal. The rest will serve as a buffer to screen the neighbors' view.  Jay Smith said the site was chosen for its proximity to a state highway and had nothing to do with the racial make-up of the area.  He added that County Waste had offered to help renovate the Pine Grove School and had signed agreements with many area residents designed to protect them from financial losses if local property values decline as a result of proximity to the landfill.  For more information go to https://greenridgeva.com/

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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