Published May 28, 2024

Standing inside Pine Grove Elementary School in Cumberland County, Virginia, memories formed decades ago come back to 81-year-old Muriel Branch with ease: daily music lessons at the piano; recess in the dense surrounding woods; even the name of her instructor, Mary E. Gilliam, who was tasked with teaching seven grades of students simultaneously in this one-room building.

Every morning from 1948 to 1953, Muriel was one of dozens of Black schoolchildren who trekked through rough terrain to attend Pine Grove. Completed in 1917, it was part of a system of schools conceived by Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and supported through the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald, which aimed to improve the quality of Black children’s education across the Jim Crow South. Between 1917 and 1932, Rosenwald funds helped build more than 5,000 schools, shops, and homes for teachers. In Virginia alone, 382 schools and support buildings were constructed in 79 counties.

Veronica Jackson, a member artist at our Virginia Center for the Book’s Book Arts Studio, first learned of Pine Grove in 2020 while flipping through a copy of our magazine Views, in search of a feature on her own work. A picture of Muriel standing inside the school, beaming at the camera, caught her eye instead, as did the accompanying story: Muriel had galvanized her extended family to save Pine Grove—and its adjacent burial site for the community’s enslaved ancestors—from imminent destruction.

Veronica looks over a finished banner from her letterpress project, titled A Permanent Record

After public schools in the South integrated, many Tuskegee Rosenwald schools were abandoned or demolished. Of the 5,357 structures that were built using Rosenwald funds, the National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates only 10% survive today. Those that remain are quickly falling into disrepair.

Moved by the Pine Grove community’s dedication to preserving its own history, Veronica decided to create a memorial to the 14 teachers and 185 students who attended the school from 1917 to 1964. The resulting artwork, titled A Permanent Record, recognizes and remembers the generations of Black Americans who were disenfranchised, segregated, and denied access to a quality education.

From left, Diane Joyner, Connie Carter and Veronica Jackson hold a completed banner from A Permanent Record

“In a way, these six banners are an archive of the students and teachers who attended and thrived at Pine Grove—who fought against an environment that didn’t want to educate them and went to school anyway,” Veronica said.

To create A Permanent Record, Veronica worked with our Virginia Center for the Book in Charlottesville to typeset then letterpress print the names of the school’s 199 students and teachers onto individual bands of canvas fabric. She recently traveled to Cumberland County to assemble the banners alongside members of the Pine Grove community, including Katherine Bolling, Diane Joyner, Connie Carter, and alumna Florine Doughty.

Each banner comprises six colors related to the Black experience: red, white, and blue, representing their African American heritage; and black, green, and gold, paying homage to their African ancestry. An architect by training and inspired by the building’s interior, Veronica intentionally designed the banners in the shape of a chevron pattern to mimic the wood slats of the walls inside the school.

“It’s symbolic of how we’re all connected through community,” Muriel remarked as she gazed at a finished banner, tracing her finger across a line of stitches. “Pine Grove was more than just a school.”

Indeed, Pine Grove was a tight-knit community by design: Rather than financing the entire construction project, the Tuskegee Rosenwald program provided partial funds—up to half the total cost of the project—which had to be matched by residents and by a county school board appropriation. The result is a network of individuals with ties both direct and indirect to the school itself, who are fiercely protective of the site and its continued accessibility, nonetheless.

Muriel Branch looks over a finished banner

Only 24 Pine Grove alumni are alive today, all of them in their 70s or 80s. The site is still facing preservation threats from a proposed landfill, which would envelop and inevitably degrade the school building’s surrounding areas. Muriel knows better than anyone: The opportunity to document this historic community is precious.

“We had to scramble and draw from our collective memories to gather these names,” Muriel said. “Now, thanks to Veronica, we have a permanent record.”

A Permanent Record will be unveiled at the Bright Hope Community Center in Cumberland County on June 15, 2024, during the community’s annual Juneteenth Celebration.

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.