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COLUMN — We are what environmental justice looks like

The 500-member-strong Agee-Miller-Mayo-Dungy Family Association are descended members of the historically Black Pine Grove community. We are the owners and custodians of the historic Pine Grove (Rosenwald) School in Eastern Cumberland County and the originators of the AMMD Pine Grove Project.

Our Family Association dates back to 1975, and was formerly organized in 2011, well before the landfill was proposed to be installed in our neighborhood.

We cannot allow the claims made by Jerry Cifor, president of Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal in the March 31 issue of The Farmville Herald to go unanswered. His assertion that members of the Agee Miller Mayo Dungy family and the community are twisting and “hijacking” the environmental justice message is itself an affront to our history as “place-makers” in the Pine Grove community. This is our land, our heritage and our community; built with the sweat, blood and toil of our ancestors beginning during Reconstruction.

Our ancestors purchased land from their former enslavers, built their homes, established their farms, raised their families, built their churches, ran businesses, enshrined their cultural traditions and buried their dead in family plots and church cemeteries during the nadir in American history.

To suggest that members of the AMMD Family are “hijackers” of the environmental justice message and the intent of the law shows a willful ignorance of the Pine Grove story and the Jim Crow laws, which spawned the establishment of our community in the late 1800s. The Pine Grove School and community were built by Black men and women during racial segregation and oppression that affected us from birth to death. We lived through racial injustice. We don’t need to rely on some arbitrary metric constructed by the Commonwealth of Virginia who codified our second-class citizenship into law in the 19th century, to validate our community as an environmental justice community. We know our history.

Truth is: the only “experts” on Pine Grove are Black residents and descendants of this freedmen-built community who can date our community lineage back to the period of enslavement as builders of white wealth on the three plantations in the community. So, you want to talk about environmental justice, Mr. Cifor? Let us remind you, sir, that we will not be defined by statistical data designed to sweep the effects of systemic and institutionalized racism under the rug or allow it to be used against us. 

The cumulative effects of Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement account for the current land loss and demographic change in the Pine Grove neighborhood — a perfect target for industries such as Green Ridge’s proposed mega landfill.

Mr. Cifor’s manipulation of demographic data shows an utter disregard for the history of the migration patterns of the Pine Grove community and what caused them. Of course the community is demographically different in 2020-21 because of decades of forced outward migration due to the lack of economic and higher education opportunities in Cumberland County.

Mr. Cifor was not forthcoming about the cultural resource study conducted by his company in which not one Black person in the community, was consulted, not one. Yet, he feigns concern for environmental racism and environmental justice? It is pretty obvious that Green Ridge did not consult a Black person in our community, because our lives and our voices were not valued until we raised them — incessantly and loudly. 

Here’s the deal, we make no apology for fighting for a safe and healthy community. We will not apologize for fighting against the rerouting of Pinegrove Road, which by the way, Green Ridge refused to take off the table under any circumstance. Pinegrove is a major corridor which has connected members of our community for well over a century, and re-routing it around the school would cut off easy access of visitors to the historic Pine Grove School for the convenience of trash trucks.

We make no apology for not accepting $100,000 dollars, as we are smart enough to know that those few dollars would be “hush” money; a way of silencing us. 

We make no apology for raising the alarm about the adverse environmental and health impacts a landfill in our midst would have on life-long residents of the community.

We make no apology for questioning the so-called buffer for a 692 feet high landfill, or the smell and dust the landfill and truck traffic would cause. 

We make no apology for not wanting to disturb the 22 formerly enslaved souls behind Pine Grove School or further decimate their memory by having garbage piled on them. 

We make no apology for advocating for what is right and just and for calling attention to America’s long history of environmental racism in communities of color who have no high-paid lobbyists to speak for us. Our weapons of choice are our faith in a just God, and the brilliance of the minds He has given us, and the courage to stand on both.

Another implicit claim Mr. Cifor makes in the article is that we are “Johnny Come Lately” in the fight, when in fact, we were represented and vocal opponents of the landfill at every one of the 2018 hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. From our observation, we were among the majority of persons and organizations opposing the landfill, but the Board of Supervisors ignored our opposition. 

Mr. Cifor is deliberately trying to mischaracterize and hijack our message of protecting and preserving a historic Black community, already decaying because of racism, poverty, health disparities and economic downturns for Black farmers in the county. We can only conclude our positive narrative is a thorn in his side.

We are the inheritors of a rich legacy of “builders,” both of structures and community, and we intend to “rebuild” our community as a monument to our ancestors and a beacon of hope and possibilities to our young, and we will fight tooth and nail to keep the physical and cultural landscape of the Pine Grove community alive.  We are forward-thinking, creative and always seeking partnerships in building community. We are for what is good, what will prosper and what will build up our community for future generations.  

We are for helping Cumberland County regenerate itself. 

We are for bringing clean, sustainable jobs and economic opportunities to the county, especially in the areas of tourism and recreation. 

We are for equity, fair treatment in the siting of a landfill or any other industry which adversely affects the well-being of citizens of Cumberland. 

We are for a clean and healthy environment for the residents of our community. 

We are for education and partnering with Cumberland County Public Schools to enrich the educational experiences of students.

We are for economic development that meets the needs of the people such as a grocery store, broadband and ambulance service. We support the food bank and other organizations which help the community.  

We are educators, attorneys, artists, logistic managers, grant writers and managers, scientists, mathematicians, authors, social workers, corporate executives, ministers and community organizers who can serve as valuable resources — long range, to school and community.

This is our story, and we will not allow it to be hijacked by the true outsider, Jerry Cifor. 

Muriel Miller Branch is an author and an educator. She worked as a school librarian for more than three decades. She won the Children’s Book of the Year citation from the Bank Street Child Study Children’s Book Committee in 1996. She was also honored with the Joan G. Sugarman Children’s Book Award in 2000-01.