“You can see a ballfield here, can’t you?” Michael Scales said as he waved his hand to indicate the entire grassy area in which he was seated. “Of course, that tree wasn’t there then,” he said, indicating a sapling growing near where the pitcher would have stood.

Scales, who had been a Spanish and history teacher in Richmond, was perched on a folding metal chair, talking to visitors in a chat circle at the Pine Grove School in Cumberland, a “Rosenwald school” that he attended from 1959 until its closing in 1964, helping explain what it was like to attended classes there. Scales joined fellow Pine Grove alumni Muriel Branch, Roosevelt Gregory and Lloyd James in detailing to several Cumberland County School System history teachers what the segregated school system was like for Black students.

In the early part of the last century, Rosenwald schools spread throughout the South, a vision of Booker T. Washington, who led the Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who made his money from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Rosenwald fronted some money toward the schools, all built on a similar blueprint, but insisted that the local community contribute as well. The Pine Grove School was built in 1917 with floor plans from the Tuskegee Institute.

While the alumni talked, Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia’s Department of Anthropology, took careful notes and posed questions. They were gathered in a circle in the back yard of the school, seated in folding metal chairs, surrounded by furniture and items from the building, cleared out so that UVA Architecture students could laser-scan the interior and exterior.

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Old piano with a black and white photo of children who attended the Pine Grove School
The Pine Grove School served roughly between 30 and 35 Black students, drawn from a five-mile radius, divided into seven grades, including kindergarten.

“We are documenting historic buildings using the laser scanner to capture the surface data of everything around it,” said Will Rourk, a 3D specialist with the UVA Library who also teaches a class at the Architecture School called “3D Cultural Informatics,” taught in collaboration with Andy Johnston, an architectural history professor and director of the Program in Historic Preservation. “That includes the building, the site that the building sits on and all the things around it. Then we have multiple data sets that we bring together into one data set, and then you have a record of this entire building, inside and out.”

The laser scanners generate a point every time they hit a surface in space and then measure the space between each point, creating a 3D record. Once Rourk and his students complete gathering the raw data, they process it in the classroom and the information will be part of a record that goes into the UVA Library.

While the alumni were detailing the history of the school and the UVA students were scanning the building, Rourk was working in the attic, scanning a space in which he could not stand.

“Attics are super difficult, but that is where you find the most information about the structure of the building, about the materials, about how it stands up,” Rourk said. “Everything is revealed in the attic because there is nothing up there to cover it up.”

Will Rourk sets up a laser scanner in the Pine Grove School
Will Rourk sets up a laser scanner, instructing students Chris MacDonnell and Matthew Schneider in the process.

Rourk learned that this building was made of solid, true-measure pine timbers. He also found two air shafts that lead from the ground on either side of the chimney to bring fresh air from the outside into the building.

“The Rosenwald schools were designed to improve education for African Americans.” Rourk said. “These were designed to improve education by providing a healthy environment for them. It is very high-ceilinged to improve air circulation. … The windows – very large, very tall windows – allow a lot of sunlight into the interior, because sunlight improved health and being able to read and understand what was going on. There was a lot of design that went into improving education, and that is why I have a deep admiration for these buildings.”

But the building still holds mysteries to Rourk.

“In two of the joists, right in the center point of the joists it had been sawn about 90% through and I don’t know if that is to flex with the building, but it was intentional,” he said. “You find little details like that because everything is revealed.”

While Rourk was carefully stepping on joists, he was conscious of the hundreds of wasp’s nests schools that dappled the rafters.

Inspector inspecting the attack of the Pine Grove School
Rourk steps carefully around the attic of the Pine Grove School while laser-scanning the bare bones of the building.

“The number of wasp’s nests was absolutely staggering and intimidating,” Rourk said. “They were abandoned. There is nothing in there now. There was a deep smell of old pine and mud, because it is all Virginia clay. You smell all that dirt from all those wasp’s nests up there. It is a weird but earthy smell.”

Natalie Chavez, a second-year architecture graduate student, and Jie Zhang, a first-year graduate student in East Asian studies and art history, examined the attic after Rourk completed his scans.

“I am amazed,” Chavez said of the work she is doing. “I want to do an oral history. It changes the view of the school and I can see why there are the personal and emotional ties. There is a dignity to the forgotten narratives.”

Zhang, who graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2017 with a degree in geography, aspires to a career in the museum and heritage field.

“I want to use digital methods to tell the stories,” she said. “I want to gain knowledge and hand skills. Having this hands-on practice reaffirms my goal.”

Another man who spent time in the attic is Jody Lahendro, a preservation architect who recently retired from Facilities Management at the University. He is working with the AMMD Pine Grove Project, a group of local residents trying to preserve the school; they named their group after the Agee, Miller, Mayo and Dungee families who are important in local history. The group owns the property, having taken it over for back taxes to the county. In analyzing the structure, Lahendro believes the slate roof is part of the local contribution to the school, since it is located near Buckingham Slate.

“You would usually see a standing seam steel roof on these buildings,” he said.

The building is one large room, which can be divided into two with a folding door partition. When the folding partition was open, it was used as a community center.

While Lahendro asked Rourk and his high-tech scans to join the project, he himself used old-school methods – a tape measure coupled with pencil and paper – to make measured drawings of the site.

Empty room inside of the Pine Grove School.
The Pine Grove School was largely emptied of furniture, equipment and materials to accommodate the laser scan.

Lahendro said the plans are to restore Pine Grove as a community center and a museum. The Pine Grove School Project has been listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places and the group is opposed to the proposed Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, scheduled to be built adjacent to the school.

The landfill issue brought Fjord, the anthropology professor, on board.

“I became involved in Pine Grove immediately after it was made public that a massive, Canadian-owned waste company wished to build a 1,200-acre landfill, to bring waste from across the northern Atlantic Seaboard to a landfill that would surround the historic Pine Grove Rosenwald School and its heritage Black community,” Fjord said. “It would reroute its historic road and entrance. … When a site study followed, it was discovered that extensive wetlands would be impacted, and Green Ridge Recycling changed its plan to dispose of the same amount of waste in just the half of the parcel to intensify geometrically the impact on this historic school and the lands owned by former students that are adjacent to it.”

The landfill also brought on board the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic at the UVA School of Law. The clinic is working with the Pine Grove School Project to protect the schoolhouse and surrounding property from the proposed landfill, an effort that is currently in the courts.

“This is more than a building,” said Muriel Branch, president of the AMMD Pine Grove Project. “This is a place where we gathered to be educated as well as gain positive values, teamwork and faith.”

Man standing in front of a worn down Grove School
Jody Lahendro, a retired UVA preservation architect, is working on the project to preserve the Pine Grove School.

Sitting regally on a folding metal chair, using her hands to emphasize points, Branch described a school of between 30 and 35 students, drawn from a five-mile radius, divided into seven grades, with the kindergarten students, referred to as ‘pre-primer,’ in the front row and seventh-graders in the back. The students helped each other with their schoolwork and studied independently when the teacher was busy.

“We did peer learning and independent study before it was a buzzword,” Branch said, noting that their textbooks were hand-me-downs from the white school in the district. “The books were in poor shape, but we took pride in them and used paper bags to put covers on them. We had one job to do when we went to school and that was to learn.”

Scales said the students were united by culture and community as well as race, and they had a respect for the importance of learning.

“‘It is what it is,’ was our attitude about the segregated school system and the inequities to which we were subjected,” Scales said.  “What is important is what you do about it. You do the best with what you have. We never felt sorry or angry about the inequities because we were proud of the quality of the education we received, and we are still proud, even from the vantage point of today.”

Inside view of the worn down Pine Grove School room
The Pine Grove School, built to the Rosenwald template, could be divided into two classrooms, or opened to be used as a community center.

Branch said seeing the condition of the Pine Grove School now made her feel sad, in part because there were so few people left in the community to take care of it.

“Economically, my community was squeezed out,” she said. “We could not make a living here. We had to go someplace else for economic viability. My mother had to sell the farm because of her inability to pay medical bills, especially prescription drugs, on her Social Security income. We had to give up our land.”

Scales, who taught during his career in Cumberland County, Prince Edward County, Richmond City and for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Correctional Education, moved back to the community three years ago. He sees potential when looking at the building: a living museum, a cultural center that will become a community hub.

“We want to plan a park with an outdoor space for gatherings, with rotating exhibits,” Scales said. “I see a lot of potential. I see it becoming a hub, a cultural center. Maybe put in a time capsule.”

Muriel Branch sitting in a chair talking
Muriel Branch said Pine Grove School was a place where students gathered to be educated as well as gain positive values, teamwork and faith.

Roosevelt Gregory, a former Pine Grove student who also lives near the school, was a caretaker of the building during the 1990s when the structure served as a community center.

“We all loved the school,” he said. “But circumstances forced us away.”

Lloyd James, who attended Pine Grove from 1956 to 1960, remembered walking the four miles to the school.

“We would have to get up at 6 a.m., start walking at around 7:30 a.m. and then arrive by 9 a.m. when the school opened,” James said. “School was over at 3 p.m. and then we would have to walk home and still have to milk the cows on our family farm. It was hard, but my family pushed us to go to school because getting an education was so important.”

Scales, Branch and the others are primary sources, according to Cumberland Middle School teacher Andrew Ronemus, who is seeking to incorporate the story of segregation and the Pine Grove School into his curriculum.

“Local history gets students’ attention,” he said. “And people are the best primary documents.”

Man sitting in a chair talking to other people in Pine Grove school yard
Michael Scales sees a lot of potential in the Pine Grove School building as a community hub and a cultural center.

Ronemus said teaching his students about the Pine Grove School and having his students be able to talk to the people who attended it has benefits for everyone.

“They are inherently tied together,” he said of his current students and the Pine Grove students. “My students can see the mistakes that were made. Maybe they can stop the wrongs of the past.”

During the alumni’s discussion with the history teachers, two of Rourk’s students worked in the back yard of the school, setting up the laser monitors on tripods, mapping the outside of the building.

“I have a natural interest in historic places,” said Chris MacDonnell, an architecture graduate student. “We worked on scanning Monticello last year. This is a chance to gather information outside the academic world.”

MacDonnell was working with Matthew Schneider, a second-year architecture and architectural history student who moved from Wyoming to learn how to use Rourk’s tools.

“I’m meeting a lot of different people” Schneider said. “And it reaffirmed my interest in stories. It always comes back to that – the architecture and the people, learning how they lived their lives as a way of understanding a place and the environment.

“That is a critical piece of the story.”

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University News Associate Office of University Communications