African American history is a myriad of complexities that are often relayed through watered-down versions of events that span from the usual starting point of slavery. It is often reduced to regurgitated bits and pieces of triumphs littered throughout the last four centuries. Much of our past is withered down to pivotal moments or notable persons who managed to achieve feats of success despite overcoming momentous obstacles, so it is appropriate that countless accomplishments of our ancestors are overlooked or completely forgotten.
There are moments of historical importance that never make it into history books, news articles, or on bestsellers lists, yet they are known oratorically and collectively passed from generation to generation. Princeville, North Carolina is a place of such lore and until very recently hardly received any recognition for its incomparable historic value.
The fact that Princeville is almost completely unknown outside of the surrounding area about its significance to black history is disheartening but not surprising. Located about 90 miles east of the capital city of Raleigh and despite it now being almost completely unlivable, the minuscule town holds a unique title that no other place can claim. It is the first town that was founded by freed black slaves in 1865 and fittingly was originally gifted the name Freedom Hill. Legend goes that the slaves were gathered upon a hill in the area when Union soldiers proclaimed that slavery was abolished and that they were now free. Though many continued to work on their previous plantations in the nearby towns of Tarboro and Rocky Mount, a select few built small encampments in what is to later become Princeville.
It became incorporated in 1885 twenty years after its founding and the name was changed to Princeville in honor of one of the town’s prominent leaders and skilled carpenter, Turner Prince. The land provided much respite for blacks looking to establish a place to call their own but of course, it came with a catch as it was located on a section of the Tar River basin that is prone to severe flooding. In just a few years after the freed slaves took up residence, Freedom Hill grew into a viable town that included inhabitants who were educators, carpenters, and ministers. Although there were bouts of dealing with threats from white supremacists, they surprisingly were able to work closely with some whites in the neighboring towns. This rare cooperation led them to be able to purchase supplies to construct row houses, a school, and the A.M.E. Primitive Baptist church in 1890 which is still standing today. While other places were founded successfully by African Americans, no other town can claim the title as being the first black incorporated town in the United States.
Unfortunately, a lot of the history of the town has been lost due to it falling victim to the numerous natural disasters that often plague eastern North Carolina and an aging population that has either died or relocated after the calamities The once resilient town is now nearly depleted due to enduring two historic hurricanes in just 17 years. First, Princeville was ravaged by flooding from the deadly Hurricane Floyd in 1999 followed by another round of destruction due to Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Even after President Clinton signed Executive Order 13146 in October 2000 to initiate alternate measures to combat flood risks, little has been done to ensure that this historic place can once again be revived. Currently, Princeville remains a shell of what it once was as the schools and most of the homes are now abandoned since the ravaging flooding from Matthew. The vast majority of Princeville’s residents were displaced and feared returning to face another disaster now leaving the town a ghost of what it once was. The few that have decided to give it another shot now have homes that are perched upon foundations built high enough from the ground to hopefully avoid another flood.
It now remains up for debate about what the future of Princeville should be. Some argue that the town should be rebuilt to reflect its former glory by constructing homes and other sites that are built to withstand flooding similar to the structural engineering that we see on the coastlines. This would also include building levees and other protective barriers to aid in the town being underwater once more. An alternative plan for the area is that it should fully become a historic site only and would discourage people from completely living there. Either way, the current conditions of Princeville and its invaluable significance to history cannot be ignored. It is up to lovers of black history to fight for the preservation of a place that literally exhibits the tenacity that black people have to overcome insurmountable obstacles.
Fun Fact: Musical legend, Prince, donated money to Princeville after Hurricane Floyd demolished the town in 1999. He has no known connection to the area other than sharing their names.
For more information about Princeville, you can visit https://www.townofprinceville.com/town-of-princeville-nc-history.html