Reviving History: The Rosenwald Schools' Legacy of Education, Equality in the Segregated South
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African American history is still being written as grassroots efforts seek to revitalize old schoolhouses known as Rosenwald Schools, which brought education to African American children across the segregated South.
In the heart of Cumberland County, Virginia, stands a beacon of historical significance against the shadows of a segregated past: Pine Grove Elementary. Constructed in 1917, this institution is one of the over 5,000 Rosenwald-Tuskegee Schools, a monumental partnership that transformed the landscape of education for African American children across the South.
"You're standing in the midst of history," said former Pine Grove Elementary student, Muriel Miller-Branch.
Miller-Branch, whose father helped build Pine Grove, recalls her daily three-and-a-half-mile journey to school – forced to walk while white students drove by on buses, spitting and throwing things at her.
"This is Jim Crow South where everything is separate," Miller-Branch said. "And your worth as an African American was not valued."
Before the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, African Americans often had no access to public education or attended segregated schools in run-down buildings with make-shift desks.
Living in the Jim Crow era led to constant tension, making schools like Pine Grove Elementary part of the innovative Rosenwald-Tuskegee initiative to build state-of-the-art schools for black children.
"Education was like our faith, they just went together," said Miller-Branch.
More than 5,300 Rosenwald schools eventually spread across the South because of the groundbreaking partnership between Sears and Roebuck Founder, Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish businessman from Chicago and Booker T. Washington, prominent African American educator and founder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
"So much of the pedagogy surrounding education – it began here," Miller-Branch said.
Historic Preservation architect Jody Lahendro is working with Miller-Branch and her daughter, Sonja Branch-Wilson, through their family's association, AMMD Pine Grove Project, to revitalize the school and preserve its history.
"They're designed to blend into the community," Lahendro said. "They became targets sometimes for the whites that were jealous about African Americans getting state-of-the-art schools constructed for them, but not for the whites."
In Virginia alone, Rosenwald helped fund more than 360 schools. The State Department of Historic Resources says about a third still stand, mainly because of community projects and family-led initiatives.
"It really does devolve down to the local community to go out and save the schools," said Marc Wagner with the resources department.
As for Pine Grove, it's been saved twice and may need a third rescue due to a proposed landfill approved by the state environmental board. Still, contractors are working to restore the school thanks to the project and help from the next generation.
"Martin Luther King didn't walk for nothing," said AMMD Pine Grove Project Student Ambassador Nashai Jean-Davis. "Mary Anderson, she didn't sing for nothing. Maya Angelou, she didn't write those poems for nothing."
Jean-Davis and Kamira Holman have stepped up to champion the cause of preserving the old schoolhouse. Their commitment helps honor a significant historical legacy, offering an opportunity to do reparative and restorative work for both the school and community race relations.
"Our history is being erased out of textbooks," said Sonja Branch-Wilson, president of AMMD Pine Grove Project. "And now it's my duty to instill these gems, these truths, to the next generation."
The Pine Grove Project is one of many emerging statewide and nationally to preserve black history. Volunteers hope their efforts will foster faith in a brighter tomorrow, offering lessons from our nation's segregated past that shape a unified future.
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