Subjected by time, the historic Black City strives to endure

PRINSWILLE, North Carolina – As she leaves the only restaurant in her hometown, clutching orders for cabbage and puppies, Carolyn Suggs Bandy stops to boast a place that claims to be the oldest city hired by black Americans nearly 140 years ago.

“It’s sacred to me,” said Bandy, 65. “We have roots in this city.”

Yet Princeville, on the banks of the Tarn River in eastern North Carolina, is a hurricane away from disaster.

The earth has been flooded many times. Two hurricanes, 17 years apart, have caused catastrophic flooding in the city, which is built on swampy low-lying land at a bend in the river. And time is hardly the only thing that has affected Princeville over the decades. He has endured racism, bigotry and attempts by white neighbors to erase him from the map and from existence.

Now, with the changing climate, the future is more uncertain than ever. Hurricanes are likely to be more intense. Melting glaciers are raising sea levels, making more floods inevitable.


With every disaster comes a suggestion: Maybe the city should take over and move to a safer place. However, many residents say that Princeville should – should – stay in place. On this earth, they see connections – both to a common history and to an ongoing struggle for survival.

“These are sacred African-American territories,” said Bobby Jones, Princeville’s two-term mayor, using words that reflect Bandy’s words. “How dare we be asked to move our city?”


When the freed slaves inhabited the land that is now Princeville, they did not choose the place because it was the best land. That was all the former slaves could afford.

“It was absolutely useless,” said Jones, who grew up just outside the city limits. “No one wanted it. No one could see anything positive about the future of the swamps.

Despite its poor location, the city prospered, growing from 379 inhabitants in 1880 to 552 in the early 20th century. There was a school, churches and many businesses. The 2020 U.S. census set the city’s population at 1,254, a sharp drop from a decade earlier.


Founded in 1885, the city is called the oldest city rented by black Americans. Other cities also claim this. Princeville – named after Turner Prince, an African-American carpenter who was born a slave and became one of the city’s first residents – has survived repeated attempts by white neighbors to repeal his charter.

But the most dangerous thing for Princeville’s survival today is its unfortunate location. The city is located at a bend in the Tar River, 124 miles from the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of the North Carolina coastal plain. When slow-moving storms come ashore and move inland, torrential rains flow into rivers and flood cities along the coast.

An earth dike surrounds the city on three sides and has kept nature in the bay for more than 30 years. Then, in September 1999, Hurricane Floyd struck. Swollen by rain blown by winds, Tar rose above, around, and even below the dike, washing homes from their foundations and the dead from their graves.


“When Floyd came, it looked like the end of the world,” said Navy veteran Alex Noble, 84, whose house absorbs several feet of water, even though it’s about a mile from the river. “It looked like you had just been taken out into the open. You know, everything was wide open. ”

Firefighter Kermit Perkins, whose mother was mayor at the time, remembers swimming along poles, power lines near the wooden stick he was carrying.

“At that moment, in this boat, he didn’t know what the future held,” he said. He didn’t know if Princeville would be there or not.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made plans to widen the embankment to better protect the city. But then, in 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, causing more devastating floods that left about 80% of the city under water, according to the Coastal Dynamics Design Lab.

The flood is likely to worsen. Hurricanes will be “wetter and likely more intense,” according to a state summary written by the state’s National University, and melting glaciers are likely to raise sea levels.


Now, with a plan of nearly $ 40 million to improve the dike, people are hoping for a break from the flood. But as another hurricane season approaches, work has not yet begun. Updated computer simulations have revealed that the original plan would cause floods in other areas. The hull is trying to come up with a better design.

The delay disappointed Jones, as he said during a recent virtual celebration of Founders’ Day.

“If they can do it in 1800, we can certainly do it in 2022,” Jones said the other day. “Our ancestors did not give up. Therefore, we can never give up.


If there is to be a Princeville tomorrow, he will rely on two achievements: restoring his history and bringing in new blood.

The city is full of single-family houses and a residential complex dotted with empty buildings that have been nailed down and abandoned as a result of the last two floods. A church sits with plywood windows.


Commerce focuses on a small strip of barber shop and liquor store, surrounding a convenient store where residents can get snacks, buy lottery tickets and refuel. A separate building houses the small seating restaurant where Bandy received his food.

There is no access to the river by boat, and an old baptismal site is blocked by a fence. The city park consists of several outbuildings and a football field with an old beam style. It currently serves as a vaccination site against COVID-19.

As for basic services, you can’t bank, and the last grocery store – called “New Beginning” – closed in 2017, two years after it opened. There is also a Dollar General store. Although the fire department has been rebuilt, the city no longer has its own police force and instead relies on deputies from the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office.

Jones believes the city’s fascinating past could be a lure for tourism. In the end, thematizing a community around its history has proved lucrative and restorative for many places. But after so many floods, very little of historic Princeville remains.


The town hall, lined with a double chimney, stands next to the restored fire station with pieces of tattered insulation swaying in the breeze. We hope the building will be turned into a museum.

The primitive Baptist church in Mount Zion with its two front doors and original stained glass windows was rebuilt after Floyd, but was flooded again during Matthew’s time. It remains closed with shutters, its walls still torn a few feet high, and its flock worshiping at a nearby shrine.

In front of the church stands a marble monument to co-founder Abraham Wooten, whose house on Mutual Boulevard is considered to be the oldest structure in the city – parts of it are believed to date back to the 1870s. But it remains exposed to the elements, vines crawling on the eaves and suffocating the old pipe of the stove on the roof.

Historian consultant Kelsey Dew says the city is looking for funds to preserve the house and would like to see it on the National Register of Historic Places. But in another Princeville irony, Dew says raising the house above flood levels would make it inadmissible for inclusion on the list “because it would compromise the historical context.”


Attracting new business in Princeville is likely to involve offering incentives such as tax breaks, such as those offered by state governments that want to recruit a large producer. Housing is also a problem: While some homes are being built, other homeowners have accepted buyouts from the NC Risk Mitigation Grant Program.

The city has bought two plots of land with a total area of ​​141 acres. There, its leaders hope, new homes and businesses will be built, possibly a hotel and truck stop – all located near the proposed Interstate 87, which is to connect Raleigh’s capital with Norfolk, Virginia.

Even with an improved dike, no one can guarantee that the city will not be flooded again. According to a 2014 Corps study, it would cost about $ 200 million to truly protect the city from a Floyd-level storm, “more than can be justified and more than the state or community can afford.”


And many troubled cities that try to retain and attract young people find their efforts insufficient.

Betty Cobb, 74, and another lifelong resident, knows that young people are graduating from high school or college and do not want to return.

“Now my grandson and my granddaughter, who is graduating this year, have grown up here. All they had to do was leave Princeville, “said Cobb. “So I think that as long as we don’t have things like that, they won’t do it, people won’t come back here and raise their children.”


The challenges are obvious. But to give up? Those who live in Princeville are not there. Not yet.

Deborah Shaw has lived in Princeville for all 61 years, 31 of whom worked for the sheriff’s office. Even with the lure of a new city and a new environment, Shaw says, Princeville calls her.

“You always feel itchy to go somewhere else,” Shaw said. “But you will always return to your original place. And Princeville is my original place. ”


Tracy Knight was in Princeville in 1999 when her family’s trailer park was flooded. Knight moved to Georgia in 2005 and returned to the area in 2013. When she opened Tray-Seas Soul Food on Main Street last November, in “one of the most unsuccessful” places in the city, people thought she was crazy.

“They said no one ever gets here in this building,” Knight said. And I said to myself, “Wow. Well, I’ll be the one to get here. “

Why take the risk? “Faith,” she says. “You have to keep the faith.”

And Noble, who came to Princeville with his wife in 1963, thinks about the freed slaves who built Princeville and what they could say to today’s people.

“You know, they always said, ‘Don’t give up.’ “Don’t give up,” he said. And that’s what we need to do. Stick to it. … You know, we haven’t gotten that far to turn. “

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Subjected by time, the historic Black City strives to endure

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