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Hope floats: Historic NC town eyes recovery and redevelopment
Princeville founded by freed slaves
Published Tuesday, July 31, 2018 9:09 pm
by Freda Freeman | The Triangle Tribune

Princeville, N.C., Fire Chief James Powell led the department when Hurricane Matthew struck. He said he had no idea of the storm’s severity until it hit the town.

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. – Residents in this eastern North Carolina town are trying to keep a significant piece of black history from figuratively and literally washing away.
They are holding a gala on Aug. 25 to raise money to go toward historic preservation projects and the rebuilding of the Edgecombe County community after severe storms left the town under water.

Princeville was the first town in the country to be chartered by freed slaves following the end of the Civil War. Proceeds from the Princeville Cultural Gala will be used to help establish a historic district which would include Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church, the first church built in Princeville more than 100 years ago; two houses that are also older than 100 years; the first school which has since been turned into the Princeville Museum; erecting a monument of Turner Prince, the town’s namesake; and developing Freedom Hill, where Union soldiers encamped, and freed slaves built the town.

The gala planning committee hopes to have 300 guests attend at the Edgecombe Community College in Tarboro and raise $135,000.

At the end of the Civil War, Union troops encouraged the slaves to return to plantations in nearby Tarboro rather than stay at Freedom Hill, which was basically nothing but swampland at the time. The slaves chose their hard-won freedom. It is this rich history that Princeville Commissioner Linda Joyner said the townspeople want to preserve by creating a historic district.  

“The freed slaves would’ve rather stayed there and retain freedom than go back to the plantation life,” Joyner said. “They made makeshift homes, they had shanties to be protected from the elements as much as possible. There was some land that was given to the slaves, but, for the most part, the land was sold to them. I guess you could wonder how could you sell something to slaves who never had a job per se. They literally worked and built it up so that they could live there, probably not as comfortably as they would have liked, but they just had that God-given strength to do what they needed to do for survival, being a very resilient people anyway, just making it happen it for themselves.”

Later, a freed slave named Turner Prince moved to Freedom Hill, built his home there, and helped build many of the other homes. Playing a major role in the settlement of the area, the town was eventually named after him.

Princeville residents have shown their resilience down through the years, especially weathering two major storms that flooded the town. Princeville was still recovering from Hurricane Floyd, which in 1999 sent flood waters over the dike and submerged the town, when it was flooded again by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The town is still recovering from the devastation.

“Despite these catastrophic events, the resolute residents of Princeville are determined to recover and rebuild their community, create a foundation for its future and preserve the legacy of being the first town chartered by former slaves,” said Jamilla Hawkins, a member of the gala planning committee.

Struggling under the weight of rebuilding, town officials held a Day of Hope last September, hoping to lift residents’ spirits. The Rev. William Barber, then president of the state NAACP, delivered a message of hope, there were singing groups, and food giveaways.

“We were at a point where it seemed like people’s spirits were becoming broken,” Joyner said. “The recovery was so slow, and it was starting to weigh heavily on our citizens, almost to a point where we really couldn’t figure out what we were going to do. The Board of Commissioners, we had a lot of questions because we were waiting on the government to come in and help us to rebuild, and it was just such a slow process, and it’s still slow, but it was almost like at a standstill. So, we decided to do something to try to build hope in the citizens.”

According to Joyner, maybe as many as 200 residents are not back in their homes, and the town is still waiting for the federal government to provide funding to rebuild or extend the dike, as mandated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following the 1999 flood. Although the road to recovery is long and difficult, Joyner said Princeville residents continue to show their resiliency as the town reinforces its efforts to rebuild.

“We intend for it to continue to be a resilient community by rebuilding it and by continuing to make Princeville better and greater than it was before,” she said.

Joyner and Hawkins said they’re excited about the gala. There will be food, music, art, special guests, and a silent auction. Sheri Dickens, who designed the Princeville flag, will be recognized. The Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir will sing the Princeville anthem, which was written by Sauuda Eshe'.

The gala will begin at 7 p.m.

For tickets: http://bit.ly/2lYd22x.


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