Personality: Sonja Branch-Wilson

Spotlight on AMMD Pine Grove Project president

4/27/2023, 6 p.m.
Sonja Branch-Wilson’s interest in learning about community and the importance of preserving one’s history began as a child.

Sonja Branch-Wilson’s interest in learning about community and the importance of preserving one’s history began as a child.

Growing up, she often sought to learn more about her ancestry and local community while absorbing the stories her family shared with her and seeking more information from wherever she could find it. From that knowledge, she gained not only a connection to her past, but an understanding of the need to not let it fade from memory or record.

Today she employs her instincts, skills and interests as the co-founder and board president of the AMMD Pine Grove Project, which works to protect and preserve Cumberland County’s Pine Grove Rosenwald School for future generations.

“Awareness and connection are the keys to the lesser-known stories of Black communities,” Ms. Branch-Wilson says. “It was a natural progression for me to honor my ancestors to become involved in developing a grassroots organization to perpetuate their legacy for future generations.”

Ms. Branch-Wilson’s role in the project carries great personal importance in that she founded the group with her mother, Muriel Miller Branch, and assumed the role last June after her mother’s four-year tenure as president. Their family also has deep ties to the school itself, which served as an educational resource for generations of African- American students, including Mrs. Branch.

As board president, Ms. Branch-Wilson plans to involve both young and older genera- tions of Cumberland County. She envisions a youth council for the AMMD project and improving senior citizens access to technology.

While these plans are varied in their focus and target demographic, they share a common strategy for Ms. Branch-Wilson: Building real connections and relationships within the Cumberland County community.

“Connecting is key,” Ms. Branch-Wilson says. “Being genuine, engaging in meaningful conversations, helping and teaching others, working as a TEAM - combining these strategies and engaging the community will advance AMMD Pine Grove Project’s mission of Preserving History, Expanding Community.”

Ms. Branch-Wilson and the Pine Grove project face several obstacles in their work, most notably plans for a landfill near the school that has made environmental justice another point of focus and concern. And while the group received a $290,000 grant from the National Park Service last year to preserve the school, she says additional funding is needed.

Nevertheless, Ms. Branch- Wilson is proud of what the Pine Grove Project has accomplished so far, and hopes to develop a network of Tuskegee-Rosenwald sister schools like Pine Grove so that more of this preservation and protection can expand. For now, however, Pine Grove School is her major focus, and she believes that great gains are being made when it comes to its history and its community.

“Pine Grove Project is making a difference in the community by being present, actively listening, and working with school-age children to inculcate in them the love of education and preserving history,” Ms. Branch-Wilson says.

Meet a preserver of African-American history and this week’s Personality, Sonja Branch-Wilson:

Volunteer position: President, AMMD Pine Grove Project.

Occupation: Educator.

Date of birth: April 1.

Where I live now: Richmond.

Education: Undergrad: Rutgers University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Graduate school: Kean University and Liberty University.

Family: Mother, Muriel Miller Branch, SGM Willis L. Branch Sr. (deceased), siblings: Willis Jr., Kenneth, Cheryl and Angela, husband, Marcel Wilson, children Shynice Wilson and Kelson Wilson.

AAMD Pine Grove Project is: A nonprofit organization.

When and why founded: AMMD Pine Grove Project was formed as an extension of the Agee-Miller-Mayo Family Association when the family, whose ancestral ties are deeply rooted in this historic school, learned that Pine Grove School was at risk of being sold for delinquent taxes. Within a week family and close friends raised funds to rescue this irreplaceable historic school. So, AMMD Pine Grove Project formally organized to protect and preserve the historical and environmental integrity of the school and the community. In June 2018, another threat emerged. A mega-landfill was being proposed to be installed adjacent to Pine Grove School. With this information, we added environmental justice to our preservation cause, to protect and preserve the historical and environmental integrity of the school and the community.

Founder: Muriel Miller Branch (my Shero).

Pine Grove School location: The Historic Pine Grove School is located in Cartersville (Cumberland County), Va.

How I became involved: Awareness and connection are the keys to the lesser-known stories of Black communities. My investment in genealogy, coordinating family reunions, and historic preservation began at a young age; it was “environmental serendipity.” I was the child who was always curious to know more about our family’s history and our ancestral community (Cumberland Co.). I often “ear hustled” while playing, or pretending to play, because being in “grown folks” business was a no-no. With each conversation, or impromptu storytelling session, I gained a greater understanding of who my ancestors were, the struggles they endured, the sacrifices they made so that future generations would have a path to follow.

When elected board president: The torch was passed to me in June 2022 after my mother stepped down from her four-year tenure.

Why I accepted the position: Beyond continuing the legacy, I am always willing to try new endeavors, especially in leadership roles, and it helped that I had, in the words of one of my high school math teachers Rev. Smith, been “riding in the second chariot” for four years, listening and learning.

No. 1 goal or project as board president: I dream big, and in color, so I actually have two! My most immediate goal, this term, is to develop and expand the AMMD Pine Grove Project Youth Council. We are well on our way, as we now have seven student ambassadors in training. Getting youth involved in the organization is the surest way to sustain its longevity. Another goal is to get a technology program for senior citizens implemented. I had written the curriculum and was prepared to launch (until) COVID hit and I was unable to implement it. Cumberland is such an internet desert, so I am searching for tech corporations to partner with us to fund a project to train and connect our seniors.

A Rosenwald School was: In 1913, Dr. Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck Company, both visionaries, devised a plan to build state-of-the art schools for Negro children across the South who would not otherwise have received an education due to Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation.

All Rosenwald schools were built according to specific plans provided by the Rosenwald Fund to make sure the schools were conducive to learning—meaning well-lit, well-ventilated, and spacious. As the result of the successful initial pilot school building program in near Tuskegee, Ala., more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools were built to educate poor, Black children in the rural South. This school-building project has been called the most important initiative to advance Black education in the early 20th century.

Pine Grove School was established when, for whom, and for how long: In 1916, Black citizens in the Pine Grove community petitioned Cumberland County to build a school for their children with the understanding that they could secure the land on which to build, and contribute a sizable amount toward the cost of building a school. Four acres of land was deeded to the County in 1916, by William and Olivia Miller, and sufficient funds were raised ($1,000 County, probably from taxes, $500 from Black residents, and $50 from the Rosenwald Fund). Pine Grove School was erected in time to receive its first pupils in the fall of 1917 to provide traditional and vocational education to Black children in kindergarten to seventh grade. The school closed in 1964 when segregation ended.

No. 1 challenge facing AAMD Pine Grove Project: We have two major challenges: Funds to continue to build and expand the organization, which will include hiring a director, developing a strategic plan, training in preservation and interpretation, environmental justice, and a survey of the 80+ historic resources identified in our Rural Historic District PIF to be recognized by National Park Service as a Rural Historic District. The other major challenge is the threat of an unnecessary mega- landfill, dumping an estimated 5,000 tons of trash a day in our pristine rural community is an affront to the legacy of our ancestors.

Importance of preserving the school and its history: I recently learned from the Historic Preservation architect, Jody Lahendro, who is working on stabilizing Pine Grove School, that less than one-third of the Tuskegee-Rosenwald Schools remain standing in Virginia and less than one-tenth of these historic schoolhouses remain standing nationally.

Ways to get involved with AAMD Pine Grove Project: We have room for anyone interested in education, community engagement, history and historic preservation, and environmental and social justice. Our contact information is www.ammdpinegroveproject.com or email ammdpinegroveproject@gmail.com.

Upcoming events: Unveiling Week! We have developed a series of celebratory events leading up to and including our Historical Marker Unveiling Ceremony on Saturday, April 29, at 11 a.m. on the grounds of Pine Grove School.

How I start the day: Prayer and meditation, usually followed by Alexa, play “Thank You” by Richard Smallwood.”

The three words that best describe me: Creative, committed, courageous.

Best late-night snack: Peppermint patties, mango or coconut gelato.

How I unwind: Listening to music (soundscapes, jazz, neo-soul, smooth R&B) with scented candles.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I would have to say a little known fact about me is that I love roller coasters.

A quote that inspires me: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman

At the top of my “to-do” list: Countdown to our upcoming Mommie-Daughter cruise. Connect with our White/Caucasian Mayo descendants. Our Mayo family members also are descendants of William and Joseph Mayo Jr. (fifth great-grandfather) of whom Mayo Island and the Mayo Bridge are named. We have connected with some of our DNA connected white Miller family members and established relationships to the point where they have even come to a family reunion and felt right at home.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: Work ethic. “Take pride in your work and put forth your best effort. You will NOT send anything sloppy or haphazard out here and have it represent you. Presentation is key.”

Persons who influenced me the most: My grandparents — the late Rev. Frank Adolph Sr. and Missouri Virginia (Walthall) Miller. The love they showed everyone was inspiring, the faith they demonstrated, and the sacrifices they made for oth- ers were exemplary and made a lasting impact on my life.

Book that influenced me the most: Associated with this work that I am doing, I would have to say, “The Warmth of Other Sons” by Isabel Wilkerson. I was deeply connected to the stories because many paralleled the stories within my own family where so many left Virginia and migrated North for better opportunities.

What I’m reading now: I just finished “Buses Are Coming — Memoir of a Freedom Rider” by Charles Person.

Next goals: To continue the work of AMMD Pine Grove Project; to thrive in, as a member of the inaugural cohort, of the Preservation Virginia African American Fellows Program under the leadership of Dr. Lisa Winn Bryan and navigate into the field of Historic Preservation and build my brand “Threads and Truth” where my tagline is “stitching our story and cultural garments together.”