By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 16, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
PRINCEVILLE, N.C. _ In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought what they call the Great Flood to this poor little town along the banks of the Tar River. For 10 days Princeville, the nation’s first town chartered by blacks, was under water. Even the ancestors, it seemed, were bailing out _ 161 caskets dislodged from their final resting place were floating in eerie eddies.
But as the waters receded, it became plain that even as the flood had nearly wiped Princeville off the map, it also had served to put it back on the map.
Jesse Jackson prayed over Princeville. Al Sharpton likened it to Valley Forge. The artist formerly known as Prince donated $37,000 to the town formerly known as Freedom Hill.
In the months that followed, thousands of volunteers, mostly white and from as far away as Alaska, streamed into town to help it rebuild. And on the very last day of February _ Black History Month 2000 _ President Clinton, who had personally surveyed the flood scene, cited Princeville’s “unique place in American history” and issued an executive order creating the President’s Council on the Future of Princeville, North Carolina.
Now, five years later, during this Black History Month, Princeville is celebrating its 120th birthday. According to a recent special census, the town’s population is back to 2,029, just about what it was before the flood.
Black history has many heroes, and the people who reclaimed Princeville are among the unsung. But black history is also its own hero here. Were it not for Princeville’s rich black history, the town itself might be history, and not many beyond the boundaries of this hard-luck place would care. And, were it not for the flood, Princeville would not truly know itself.
“I didn’t know Princeville was that rich in history until the flood came,” said Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates, who has a ministry in town with her husband. “It was a hidden community waiting to be revealed. It took a disaster to bring out the miracle.”
Indeed, said Sam Knight, the town manager, whatever pride he felt about Princeville’s history growing up was overwhelmed by a more powerful sense of place. “At the time there was the feeling of the misfortune of being born here,” said Knight, who was gone from Princeville 33 years before returning in 1995.
In fact, while the story line of a determined people reclaiming their proud heritage seems obvious, it was a close call. The town was offered a federal buyout _ they would be paid for their property and Princeville would be no more _ and many were tempted.
“At first I wanted to take the buyout,” said Isabelle Baker, now a town commissioner, who, like many, was rescued from the rising waters by motorboat. “At the time, people weren’t thinking of no heritage,” said Baker, an insurance agent, and “if it floods again, heritage is not going to mean a thing if we wash away.”
But, by a 3-to-2 vote, the town Board of Commissioners, led by then-Mayor Delia Perkins, voted to reject the buyout and return home.
“I’ve always known the history of Princeville, but it wasn’t something a lot of people talked about; it was just home,” said Perkins. “It was just home.”
At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves collected in these swampy lowlands under the protection of Union troops, creating a community they called Freedom Hill. Twenty years later, on Feb. 20, 1885, it was incorporated as Princeville, named for Turner Prince, an ex-slave and early citizen.
“It’s something sacred to us,” said Dennis Waller, who grew up here and works fixing appliances and helping his brother with his print shop across the river in Tarboro. “We knew the land was no good, but it was good to us, just to have our own place.”
Since the town’s founding, floods have been a fact of life in Princeville, but nothing like the harrowing events of 1999.
Suddenly, it seemed, the people of Princeville were living a Bible story. “Overnight we were Job,” said Mayor Everette-Oates.
“I saw dogs drown,” said Waller, who was wading out to try to rescue one when he spied snakes and frogs in the current of water rushing toward him. Waller retreated home, clambering to a high spot, waving a broom to which he had attached a white sheet. “I knew I was dead,” he said. But a helicopter came to his rescue.
Remarkably, unlike the recent Asian tsunami, which sent a deep shudder through Princeville, nobody here died. “It was the Lord,” said Everette-Oates.
Ernest Williams, the proprietor of T&T Groceries, takes solace that, at 62, he doesn’t expect to be here for the next flood. “I be gone, I be dead and gone,” said Williams, who is still haunted by what he says are mirages of flood waters. But Williams acknowledges that the new Princeville is an improvement. “It looks better,” he said. “A lot of places needed fixing up.”
Yet Princeville, which had 21 businesses before the flood, has only 13 now, all mom-and-pop operations, like T&T with its sparsely eclectic inventory of Thunderbird wine, White Owl cigars, Hershey bars and vintage videotapes.
Princeville has never had a bank or a post office, a supermarket or a waffle house, said Baker.
“We need to entice business, but there’s nothing here to attract businesses; it’s been a low swampland for centuries,” said Milton Bullock, who was baptized in the Tar River but whose vanity plates on his Mercedes testify to his years in the world beyond, singing tenor with the Platters. It was the flood that called Bullock home to tend to family property.
Over on Main Street, Robert Davis is hustling to open Real Deal Fashions and Much, Much More in time for Princeville’s birthday celebration. It will be as close to a department store as the town has had _ clothing, jewelry, shoes, check-cashing and a barbershop and beauty salon.
Like many in Princeville, Davis seems guided by providence. It was February 2002 _ “the end of Black History Month,” he recalls _ and Davis was driving from his hometown of Towson, Md., to Miami “to chill,” when he pulled off the highway and into a parking lot to rest. It turned out to be Princeville, and he decided the next morning to buy the flood-ravaged store he was parked next to.
“This is history,” said Davis in his hoarse whisper, eyes blazing with impatience at what he considers Princeville’s failure to parlay its past into something more than a flood of memories.
“God put you under water to wake you up,” Davis said he tells his neighbors. “Let’s make something happen.”
Some things are happening. A riverfront park on the land closest to the new dike is coming along. The town’s first health and dental clinic is on its way. And they will soon be seeking bids for the restoration of the old Town Hall, formerly Princeville’s Rosenwald School, as an African-American museum.
It will be a challenge to tell the story of a town where virtually all the artifacts of its past were washed away. A Princeville oral history project undertaken by scholars from North Carolina State University will help. Ultimately, what sets Princeville apart is its sense of community, kinship and home.
Somewhere, said Knight, wandering deep in the cemetery behind his father’s house, lies the undiscovered grave of Turner Prince.
Tromping through the crunch of brown leaves and grass in the graveyard, the ground gives a bit, a squishy reminder of Princeville’s tenuous existence. The Knights are all buried here _ Sam’s grandparents, mother, uncles and cousins. So too are some Cofields, Graveses, Ruffins, Farmers and Dickenses, all family to him.
“One thing about this area,” Knight explains, “everybody’s almost kin to one another, one way or the other.”