In 1954, just under seventy years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional in public schools in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. For many Black elders who attended segregated schools as children, this historic decision is deeply personal. Muriel Branch, now 80, remembers going to Pine Grove Elementary School—located in Pine Grove, Virginia and one of the remaining Rosenwald Schools—like it was yesterday.
“Me and my siblings walked 3.5 miles one way to school in all kinds of weather,” Branch recalled. “We’d pick up our cousins and friends along the way. We all lived way off the dirt road, so when we got to those lanes we’d stop and have a call and response. We’d hooo-hooo-hooo-hooo and they’d respond to let us know they were on their way to the road to meet us. It was a lot of fun.”
While the school holds a special place in Branch’s and in the larger Pine Grove community’s memory, it is also a tribute to the importance of ensuring Black children received a quality education in the Jim Crow era. Today, Pine Grove is threatened by the proposed construction of a nearby mega-landfill, and was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2021. The community is fighting to preserve and protect this important landmark.
Going to School in Pine Grove
Rosenwald Schools were born of a partnership between Dr. Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The pair built 5,357 state-of-the-art schools for Black children across the South from 1917 until 1932. About a third of rural Black children in the South were served by the schools.
Although these thousands of schools built by Washington and Rosenwald have been collectively called Rosenwald Schools, those preserving the school in Pine Grove have been calling them Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools to honor Washington’s input, as well as that of the Black communities who sustained the schools.