Pine Grove Project recognized for preservation efforts

Published 7:51 pm Thursday, September 7, 2023

The AMMD Pine Grove Project, which is working to preserve history in Cumberland County, was recognized by Preservation Virginia for its outstanding community preservation in its 2023 Virginia Historic Preservation Awards. 

Preservation Virginia is the nation’s first statewide historic preservation organization that has recognized outstanding preservation projects, organizations and individuals for the past 50 years who excel in preserving the Commonwealth’s unique history and culture.

The AMMD Pine Grove Project was recognized for Outstanding Community Preservation. Other categories include Outstanding Preservation Project, Outstanding Research Efforts, Outstanding Preservation Achievement and the Trustees’ Excellence in Achievement Award. All of these recognize the work these projects are doing to enhance Virginia communities by rehabilitating and restoring historic structures, preserving landscapes and revealing new discoveries through research.

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“The AMMD Pine Grove Project reflects how a community-based effort can attract collaborators to save a historic place,” said a spokesperson from Preservation Virginia. “Muriel Branch and her team have effectively organized to save Pine Grove Elementary School and advocate on behalf of this historic community. Their selection as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places demonstrated the nationwide importance of this historic site and elevated their story. They’re also willingly sharing their experiences to help strengthen capacity in other organizations to preserve places of history that have been marginalized and often overlooked.”

Muriel Miller Branch is a former student of the school, as is her father, and is a member of the Agee-Miller-Mayo-Dungy Family Association, which this project is an extension of. Her daughter Sonja Branch-Wilson is currently the president of the AMMD Pine Grove Project. 

What is the project?

The AMMD Pine Grove Project is an organization that seeks to protect and preserve the legacy of the rural Pine Grove School and the African-American community it served for decades. The project initially started when the families tied to the school learned that the school was going to be sold due to delinquent taxes. The family and friends raised enough money to save the school. Not long after in June 2018, the Green Ridge Landfill was proposed adjacent to the school. This added environmental and social justice to the pillars of the organization along with community engagement, historic preservation and education. 

“Schools continue to be a significant part of history,” said Branch. “Our dream is to restore it to its heyday as it was a hub of the community.”

According to Branch, they are looking to turn one classroom into a historic museum to look exactly how it would have when running as a school. The other room would serve as a meeting place as well as have panels of information for a walking tour. No plans are finalized yet but they hope to sometime this year.

The school was built in 1917 and served as a school until 1964 when it closed for desegregation and then became a community building. The AMMD Pine Grove Project is currently working on restoring the building. So far, they have worked with an architect to check the structural integrity of the building and held a workday to address the immediate needs. The school building now has outdoor electricity, a new well pump and a security gate. 

Along with making physical improvements, the organization has held webinars to educate about the history of the school and its importance to the community as a Tuskegee Rosenwald School. They have also met with the community and former students to gain input on what they want to see from this project. 

Along with its many other supporters, including the University of Virginia and others who have supported the project in many ways, Branch-Wilson extends a thank you to Preservation Virginia for its help in preserving the school and the community.

“From its inspection, they have written letters on our behalf and are just a wonderful partner,” said Branch-Wilson. “They have been so very critical to the success that we have had in our community preservation work.”