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Virginia community looks to preserve former school that's part of segregated past

History isn't just a time, it's also a place.

Farms where civil rights protesters camped. A Navajo trading post. Or a rural schoolhouse.

That last one strikes a familiar chord for Muriel Branch. "The only way you knew what grade you were in was by the row you sat on," recalls the 78-year-old of her time at Pine Grove Elementary School in Cumberland County, Va.

Pine Grove was small. One room was a classroom. Another held jackets and firewood. It was also where Branch played house under pines and read books when she finished classwork early.

Today, Branch is president of the AMMD Pine Grove Project, a group of community members and former students dedicated to giving the school renewed purpose.

A Rosenwald school, Pine Grove was one of thousands built in the South over two decades to provide better schools for Black children during segregation. After the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated schools in 1954, separate schools, such as Pine Grove, eventually closed.

Now the site needs major repairs to fulfill its future as a community center - a place where locals can register to vote, attend festivals and view Black history exhibits. Branch worries that future is threatened by a possible new neighbor: a landfill operating six days a week, accepting 3,500 to 5,000 tons of trash daily.

"What are we going to say?" Branch wonders if a proposal for the Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility is approved. " 'There's a dump next door?' That's not a way to attract visitors."

In June, the former school was named one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The purpose of the annual list, started in 1988, is to highlight historic locations at high risk of losing a chance to share their stories.

"Once they're gone, we've lost not just part of our history, but we've also lost powerful places where we can come together and understand and explore that history," says Katherine Malone-France, the nonprofit organization's chief preservation officer.

How do sites become threatened?

Development is one cause, but others include environmental factors and lack of money or understanding of their importance.

The trust's list includes the Boston Harbor Islands in Massachusetts, which are experiencing increased coastal erosion because of climate change. Centuries-old archaeological sites are being lost.

Another example includes California train tunnels that Chinese workers dug through Sierra Nevada mountains in the mid-19th century. No longer in use, they've been vandalized and sprayed with graffiti.

Places sharing stories about women and communities of color are particularly in danger of being lost, says Malone-France, as past preservation efforts often "focused on the stories of White men."

The best way to save them, she says, is to use them.

For now, Pine Grove's future remains uncertain: The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is still reviewing the landfill plan.

Green Ridge spokesman Jay Smith says he thinks both can successfully coexist.

He says the landfill won't accept sludge and drywall - stinky smell culprits - and that worries about road access are misguided. A plan to move part of Virginia State Route 654, which the school is on, is because it would run through the 240-acre disposal site - a spot chosen to avoid wetlands - on the 1,200-acre property.

"As far as the eye can see in front of the school, that path won't change," Smith says, adding that trucks will access Green Ridge from a private road.

Environmental hazards will be addressed by modern safeguards, he says. Wastewater won't leak into the ground. It will be collected and turned into drinking water at a water treatment facility. Methane gas will be captured and made into an energy source.

"We believe the school should be preserved and should be put to continued use as a historic property," Smith says. "And nothing about this landfill puts that into jeopardy."

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