At exit 486, you leave U.S. Highway 64 to find yourself on a two-lane road. From your car, the community you enter looks just like many others that dot the landscape of Eastern North Carolina: a Lions Club sign greets you to the town, as do a squat town hall and homes with neatly trimmed lawns. The quiet Tar River passes slowly by, separating it from its larger neighbor, Tarboro.
But Princeville isn’t an ordinary town.
Princeville was the first of its kind, a place in the South where African Americans could gather to foster safety in numbers against belligerent neighbors. The town would also become a symbol for the impacts of environmental racism, with the settlement repeatedly affected by flooding due to its low-lying location on the Tar River.
Origins of the settlement
At the end of the Civil War, a large number of freedmen gathered together on a largely neglected low-lying plain across the small settlement of Tarboro, around 20 miles east of Rocky Mount. This new settlement was christened Freedom Hill, after the small hill where Union troops informed the Black residents of the area that they had been emancipated.
In 1885, the village was incorporated as Princeville in honor of local carpenter Turner Prince, who was an important member of the fledgling community.
Though Princeville managed to escape the terror of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they still faced the effects of white supremacy. The Tarboro Southerner newspaper openly displayed the resentment the white locals felt for their Black neighbors. In 1868, the paper decried the newly proposed North Carolina Constitution, asking:
“...what will be the consequence now… when 70,000 ignorant negroes vote, and, especially, when it is undeniable that they have voted heretofore solidly against the white man, and at the bidding of the worst men in the country?”
Despite this hostility, Princeville and other heavily Black communities in Eastern North Carolina had some electoral success. The town was a part of North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, referred to as the “Black Second.”
Three Black congressmen were elected from the region, including Reps. James O’Hara and Henry Cheatham. Another representative, George White, hailed from Tarboro, and would serve as the only Black representative in the House during his two terms at the close of the 19th century. His departure marked the last time a Black member would serve in Congress for nearly 30 years. After leaving office, White would go on to co-fund a Black settlement similar to Princeville in New Jersey named Whitesboro.
When they weren’t facing the scorn of their white neighbors, the people of Princeville faced the wrath of the unpredictable Tar River. Though on a normal day, the Tar River seems like yet another slow-moving Southern stream, it has at many points endangered the lives and property of Princeville residents.
Founded on a low-lying floodplain, Princeville was particularly vulnerable to flooding. The settlement being here was no coincidence: it was simply the land no white landowners wanted anything to do with. The village faced severe flooding shortly after its foundation, as well as six other times in the next century. After the particularly devastating 1958 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a large levee along the Tar River’s southern bank.
Things remained calm for several decades. In 1999, however, the community was dealt a crushing blow by the devastation of Hurricane Floyd. Across Eastern North Carolina, over 1,000 survivors were rescued by Marine helicopters, and Princeville was drowned under 12 feet of water.
Much like in the cemeteries of New Orleans six years later during Hurricane Katrina, caskets were swept from their burial sites and families who had just lost their homes were forced to rebury their dead.
The town was devastated, but ultimately, its people rebuilt and returned. Floyd caused a “500-year flood," meaning that such a devastating event should happen only once in a 500-year window.
Seventeen years later, the town experienced another 500-year flood. Hurricane Matthew brought torrential downpours upon Princeville, though the levee seemed to keep the town above water at first. Three days after the hurricane left the area, the water overtook the levee and flooded 80 percent of the town.
Several months beforehand, flaws in the levee had been detected by the Army Corps of Engineers — flaws that left the town open to this kind of disaster.
By 2018, 500 of the 700 residents had returned, and the town was slowly but surely recovering. In 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would be retrofitting the levee protecting the town once again, setting aside nearly $40 million for the project.
Why Princeville matters
One could look at this information and ask, “Why rebuild?” Some residents of the town seem to be asking this question themselves. In 2016, dozens of residents sought a buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, allowing them to leave their flooded land without being financially devastated.
But other residents remain. This is sacred ground, they argue. Leaving it to be wasted away by the waters of the Tar would be tantamount to burying Jamestown or Plymouth under a pile of ash.
Regardless of what happens to it in the future, Princeville has already secured itself in the history books. Not only was it the first American community founded by freed slaves, but it has also served as a microcosm of environmental racism in the United States.
A slice of Princeville can be seen in the slow FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or in the construction of a toxic waste dump near a predominantly Black community in Warren County during the 1980s, or in the countless other instances in which communities of color were harmed in the face of environmental disaster.
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