Princeville, North Carolina: The Town Downstream
Most people are familiar with the historic town of Princeville from the national recognition received during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Donations from celebrities such as Prince and a visit from former President, Bill Clinton put this small historic town in the spotlight. But there’s much more to the story of Princeville than the devastation caused by this natural disaster.
Princeville began as a camp for Union soldiers sent to protect newly-freed “slaves” after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. These freed enslaved Africans settled nearby for the relative safety, and the town began to form. Then, it was referred to as Freedom Hill or Liberty Hill by some. The people of Freedom Hill literally built the town with their hands and skills learned while enslaved, instilling a great sense of pride that has lasted generations. According to historian Rudolph Knight, Princeville started out as an experiment that turned into an experience. Founders, Turner Prince, Abraham Wooten, and many others solicited a senator of Edgecombe County, Robert Taylor, to introduce a bill for the town to be chartered. It took 20 years for the town to finally be incorporated. There were many doubts and questions during that time if an all black town in the south, run by former “slaves” could be successful. As a Princevillian, I am proud to say that Princeville succeeded.
Having the power to govern themselves was a huge accomplishment. While it was illegal for blacks to vote in America, Princeville citizens were voting for their own Mayor and councilmen. This amazing status drew talented and determined black people from around the country to Princeville, creating the very first Black Wall Street. The town was self sufficient with black-owned businesses from carpentry, to beauty parlours, and grocery stores. Citizens were able to gain economic power, and with economic power comes political power. This was excellent for the town. It became a part of Edgecombe county, where the 2nd black congregational district was created due to the large number of black people in the area.
Princeville NC’s history is unique, but parallels many other black communities in regards to environmental racism, economic barriers, and many political challenges. The town has faced racial intimidation (although there was never a successful attack on their land), economic and social isolation, as well as repeated flooding (e.g.1865,1889,1919,1924,1940, and 1958). However, Princeville courageously persisted as a cohesive black town and community.
After President Clinton’s visit, an executive order was written to declare that the federal government recognized Princeville’s relevance and importance to American History. The goal was to form a committee to protect the rich history of the town. In 2001, tragedy struck our country when planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the country’s attention and priorities shifted, leaving Princeville with some unresolved issues.
After the building of a levee in 1965 to prevent major flooding, the town saw many modern improvements. Princeville annexed additional land growing the size of the town as well as the population and number of businesses. The most pressing issue for Princeville today is repeated flooding. The Army Corps of Engineers designed an update for the levee to ensure the best safety for roughly a little over 2k town citizens.Due to political drawback the levee still remains hazardous for the citizens of this historic town.
Like so many black financial hubs and historic black towns, urban development and roadway development was deliberately planned through the town limiting it’s growth. This plan destroyed many of the historic structures making it difficult to establish a historic registry which would provide protection and funding to restore these structures.
Another consequence of building the highway was increased probability of flooding. In 1999 Hurricane Floyd hit. This type of storm only comes around every 500 years and the damage was significant. Saving the capital, Raleigh NC, or bigger towns like Rocky Mount upstream was the priority and small towns like Princeville and Tarboro down stream would suffer the consequences.
“It was confirmed The city of Rocky Mount, located roughly sixteen miles to the west of Princeville along highway 64, had opened the floodgates to the Tar River Reservoir Dam during the first days of the storm in the hopes of averting disaster. That part of history is not discussed often, much like it isn’t discussed when we discuss New Orleans. There were rumors that levees were deliberately blown in black neighborhoods during Hurricane Betsey in 1965 that nearly destroyed New Orleans, and again in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. The other correlation to New Oreleans and Katrina is the delay and quality of assistance from FEMA. Many of the frustrations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were registered by both Princeville and Katrina survivors, particular in terms of how long it took the organization to provide relief. In a 2014 report on Princeville, current and former residents of Princeville believed that relief from FEMA after the hurricane was slow, echoing similar criticisms of FEMA after Katrina. The report also acknowledged the strong historical ties of place that both Princeville and New Orleans residents voiced after being displaced from their homes. Like New Orleans, the natives of Princeville exhibited a strong connection to the community. At stake was the legacy and memory of Freedom Hill.” - Richard M. Mizelle, Jr, Princeville and the Environmental Landscape of Race
Hurricane Matthew was different, the levee was never breached. This time the water went around the levee on both the north and south sides. After more research, it was found that the neglect of the DOT to clean flood flaps and ensure they were all in place, played a significant role in the flooding that took place during Matthew.
The portrayal of a flood prone town makes onlookers believe Princeville is nothing more than swamp land and not worth the resources needed to rebuild. What isn’t shared enough is the negligence and politics that lead to the most recent floodings. But most importantly the history and perseverance of the people of Princeville is not widely known.
“Though Princeville’s first settlers were initially forced into environmentally degraded land, by the mid-twentieth century, before the 1999 flood there were roughly 850 single-family homes, approximately 40 businesses, and 3 churches, one of which, Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church, was constructed in 1876. Their waterfront location had been re-defined by local and state officials as prime real estate property. The result is that Princeville has often dealt with both real and imagined pressure to cease existing as an all-black community, and to allow their property to be annexed by surrounding towns.”
Princeville is absolutely more than a swamp land. It’s a place that can thrive by utilizing its nearby resources. The town has the potential to provide a place for businesses, entrepreneurs, politicians, educators, and more. Princeville recently annexed 53 acres of land on high ground for additional development. Located off of I-95 and 64 West, the town has a prime location for agriculture, entrepreneurship, business or cultural incubation, and tourism. The town's leadership and population remains majority-black making Princeville a great place for the resurgence of Black Wall Street.
In order for this vision to become a reality, the state and national government need to devote the necessary resources to repair the levee. Princeville’s historic legacy is a lightning rod and motivation for community development and vertical economic development. We believe once there is economic interest in development, the political urgency to flood-proof the town will follow.
Our ancestors knew the value in ownership. We are here to reflect their original drive, enthusiasm and vision. Princeville Homecoming is designed to celebrate the rich legacy of this historic town and bring the community together. The vision goes beyond the events that will take place in August of next year. We are calling for political action and encouraging a migration of black business owners to this town for the advancement of our community. To get involved please sign-up for our email list here.