Muriel Branch, stands in front of the Pine Grove School in Cumberland, which she attended as a child. A major landfill is planned to built nearby. (Photo courtesy of Muriel Branch)

CUMBERLAND — Just inside the front door of the 100-year-old Pine Grove School in Cumberland County’s small Cartersville community, the soft wood underfoot groans and gives under Muriel Branch’s steps. 

“I walked three and a half miles to get here, each way, each day,” says Branch, sweeping her gaze around the one-room schoolhouse where she received her elementary education from 1949 to 1955. “Pine Grove School really means something to me.”

One of at least 360 Rosenwald Schools built in Virginia from 1917 to 1932, Pine Grove School was founded to better educate African-American students in Cumberland.

Venerable black educator Booker T. Washington created the Rosenwald Schools model in a multi-pronged effort to improve the quality of education for black children in the South  in the early 20th century. Then, in the thick of the Jim Crow era where nearly all advancement opportunities for black Americans — including education — were severely limited, philanthropist Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company partnered with Washington, creating a fund to help build the schools. 

Pine Grove School sits on four acres adjacent to land recently acquired by Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility. Green Ridge, owned by County Waste of Virginia, is a proposed landfill to be built on 1,200 acres in the extreme east of Cumberland County, bordering Powhatan County.

The landfill, for which the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors has granted rezoning and conditional land use permits, has been met with ire from some residents of several counties for a laundry list of reasons.

Love Central VA, a citizens group comprising residents of five counties including Cumberland and Powhatan, are petitioning state regulators who must sign off on the soundness of the proposed facility’s environmental standards before it can be built. Citing numerous concerns about the “environmental, health and safety impact” Green Ridge could have on the area, the petition “respectfully demands” that the Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Transportation deny approval to Green Ridge.

A sign opposing a proposed Cumberland County landfill was placed U.S. Route 60 in Cumberland County. Photo by Robert Zullo.

Green Ridge representatives said in an email that the company has not yet submitted applications to the agencies. In the next month the company will submit a notice of intent to DEQ, followed by an application. Green Ridge’s application to VDOT is forthcoming.  

Those who own homes near the proposed landfill say they will suffer a permanent decrease in property value or, as lifelong Cumberland resident Jacqueline Hamlette fears, face more serious challenges.

Hamlette’s mother Cora Cooke attended Pine Grove School, and has lived the last 55 years in a home she inherited from her mother. Hamlette says, historically, their land was part of an antebellum-era plantation and that her family may be descended from formerly enslaved people who stayed on the site after the Civil War.

Cooke’s home is less than a mile from the proposed landfill’s site. 

“It took every effort possible for my grandmother to build this home; she grew old and died here, she passed it on to my mother. Now, my mother is elderly, she’s not in the best health, and here comes this landfill,” Hamlette said. Green Ridge, she added, offered to buy the property of homeowners in the area, but says it’s not a realistic option for her mom.

“You mean to tell me she should just uproot her entire life, go through the process of finding or building a new home away from the land she inherited, at her age and in her condition?” Hamlette said. “It’s not right.”

Green Ridge estimates 3,500 to 5,000 tons of nonhazardous waste will be processed at its facility each day. Scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, the facility will have capacity to contain the garbage for at least 35 years. Though the Pine Grove School is just outside the land boundary of Green Ridge’s planned facility, Branch says it is too close for comfort. 

“[Green Ridge] is going to encroach on a historic site. If the proposed road for the facility is put in, that will impact access to the school site. Not to mention the smell, the unsightliness of it. Who wants a dump in their backyard?”

Branch is chairman of the Agee Miller Mayo Dungy Family Association, which paid back taxes on the school in May and plans to restore the school and transform it into a community center. 

“We have partnered with Preservation Virginia, and we’re waiting to meet someone to do an assessment of the building,” says Branch. In 2013, Preservation Virginia named Rosenwald Schools like Pine Grove among the state’s most endangered historic sites. The entity has since then created a mobile survey program to help former students and other groups statewide find, document and help preserve Rosenwald schools in their communities.

“We’re trying to get the building listed on the register of historic places, because it certainly qualifies,” says Branch. Her group and others will host a clean up and beautification day at the Pine Grove school on Oct. 6. 

Beyond the environment, their homes and the historic school in their community, Green Ridge’s planned facility may also disturb the dead. In August, a group of local hunters discovered what they believe to be grave sites within Green Ridge’s land boundary, says Victoria Ronnau of the Love Central VA group.

After learning that human remains may be resting on part of the 1,200-acre parcel, “we walked the land and found about 12 to 15 depressed areas marked with stones,” Ronnau says. “This is yet another reason, one of the most serious reasons, that Green Ridge should not be built here or anywhere in the state of Virginia.”

Opponents of a proposed Cumberland County landfill believe there may be graves on the site. (Samantha Willis/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Kevin Ingle is chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors, serving the county’s third district. Ingle’s was one of two votes opposing Green Ridge’s rezoning and land use permit requests.

“I wanted to be sure the people living closest to the landfill and who would be most impacted by it were treated fair,” he says. “And my other big concern at first was traffic on Route 60,” which would be increased by the trucks hauling tons of trash eastbound on Route 60 to Green Ridge’s facility daily, says Ingle.

Now, he’s among the increasing number of residents who believe both Pine Grove School and the nearby possible grave sites should be protected and preserved.

“I feel surely that those are graves,” says Ingle, “because I’ve seen quite a few of them out here in the backwoods, in places that 200 years ago were open fields and are now forests. We need to all be extremely mindful of that.”

On Aug. 28, Branch, Hamlette, Ronnau and other Cumberland residents led Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and Green Ridge manager Jerry Cifor on a boots-on-the-ground survey of the land. The hunters who found the graves led the group through the woods, slashing through thick brush and pointing out weathered stones on what appear to be burial plots.

Cifor admitted at that time that citizens had told Green Ridge previously that there may be graves on the land, but he had not seen them in his “many” previous tours of the property. Cifor said Green Ridge had previously conducted a LiDAR survey – defined by the National Ecological Observatory Network as “a remote sensing method that can be used to map structure including vegetation height, density and other characteristics across a region” – but found no evidence of graves on the site. 

“We’ve now engaged our own archaeologist, and he will be completing his work over the next several weeks, over the entire 1,200 acres,” Cifor said that day. “And we’ll know if there are any sites of historical significance on our property, as well as any grave sites. … We will respect the grave sites; we’ll probably fence [them] in and put up a sign and be very respectful.” 

The archaeological team, Browning & Associates, is completing its survey, a process they anticipate taking “several more weeks,” company officials said in an email this past weekend. Wet weather delayed the survey process, but the findings will be posted on Green Ridge’s website, they said.

McQuinn says that if there are indeed graves on the site, they may include the remains of people born enslaved, since most of the area used to be plantations. 

“My office is investigating this, and we are interested to learn what the archaeologist’s report will reveal,” she says. McQuinn headed up two bills which for the first time in Virginia history makes state funding available for the restoration and upkeep of historic black cemeteries. Also concerned about the future of the historic Pine Grove School, McQuinn says it holds “great significance in terms of African-American history in the state of Virginia.”

Branch remembers her teacher, Mary Gilliam, corralling kids in the school’s one classroom, patiently teaching reading and arithmetic, but also skills that translated outside the classroom like public speaking. Gilliam instilled in her students a deep respect for their community and its heritage, says Branch, and that is why she will continue to oppose the Green Ridge facility.

“You feel like David going up against Goliath. But I just have faith that right is going to prevail here. Our history is worth preserving and fighting for,” Branch said.