Historic Black town in North Carolina lies one hurricane away from disaster
As she exits her hometown’s only restaurant clutching an order of cabbage and hush puppies, Carolyn Suggs Bandy pauses to boast about a place that stakes its claim as the oldest town chartered by Black Americans nearly 140 years ago.
“It is sacred to me,” said Bandy, 65. “We got roots in this town.”
Yet historic Princeville, on the banks of the Tar River in eastern North Carolina, is one hurricane away from disaster.
With an ever-changing climate, hurricanes are likely to be more intense, and melting glaciers are causing sea levels to rise, making more flooding inevitable.
Princeville’s future rests not only on protecting the town from flooding, but also convincing younger generations to make a home in the town. The latest U.S. Census puts the town’s population at 1,254, which marks a steep decline from 2010. The median income is $33,325 as of 2020.
Gaining new residents will require providing opportunities that make the move worth it, or convincing young families to stay.
Two-term mayor Bobbie Jones, a full-time school principal who lives in Princeville and commutes one hour each way to his job in Hertford County, says history compels him — and others —to work for his town’s survival.
“These are sacred grounds,” Jones said. “These are sacred African-American grounds.”
Princeville was incorporated in 1885 by former slaves on swampy, low-lying land. The town grew from a population of 379 in 1880 to 552 at the turn of the century. It had a school, churches and businesses.
The town has endured racism, bigotry and attempts by white neighbors to erase it from existence.
Today, Princeville features single-family homes interspersed with empty homes that have been boarded up and abandoned as a result of the two latest floods. One church sits with its windows covered in plywood.
Commerce focuses on a small strip where a barber shop and a liquor store flank a convenience store where residents can get snack foods, buy lottery tickets and fill their cars with gasoline. A separate building holds the small sit-down restaurant where Bandy got her food.
Princeville is in a bad spot when it comes to hurricanes because of its position on the Tar River. The town lies 124 miles from the Atlantic Ocean at the edge of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain, an area where the biggest threat from tropical weather tends to be rain, not wind. When slow-moving storms come ashore and move inland, drenching rains that can extend far from the core of the storm drain into the rivers and flood towns along the banks.
“When Floyd came, it seemed like the end of the world. It seemed like you just were turned outdoors. You know, everything was wide open.”
If it’s not hurricanes, ocean levels could be a threat, according to a summary of the state’s climate written by N.C. State University.
Melting glaciers add more water to the ocean, and sea water increases in volume when it warms up, the report says.
Attempts to protect the town from flood waters have been mixed.
In 1967, the Army Corps of Engineers completed an earthen dike along the Tar’s southern bank. Nearly 3 miles long and up to 49 feet above sea level, the levee surrounds the town on three sides.
For more than 30 years, it held nature at bay. Then, in September 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit.
Swollen by rain, pushed by winds, the Tar surged over, around and even under the dike, washing homes from their foundations and the dead from their graves.
“When Floyd came, it seemed like the end of the world,” says Navy veteran Alex Noble, 84. “It seemed like you just were turned outdoors. You know, everything was wide open.”
In the spring of 2016, after years of study, the Corps announced plans to try and prevent another disaster. The levee would be extended, roads would be raised, and gates would be installed in culverts to prevent water passing through the dike.
Just a few months after that announcement, Hurricane Matthew struck, and with it came more devastating flooding.
In response, Congress approved nearly $40 million to better protect the town. The money was appropriated in 2020, but as another hurricane season approaches, nothing has happened.
Despite the delays, Col. Benjamin A. Bennett, commander of the Corps' Wilmington district, said Princeville is a priority.
“We have a team of engineers every single day and a large part of our district focused on Princeville. We are actively tweaking our design and trying to optimize the engineering, and running models to make sure that we protect Princeville without causing problems somewhere else,” Bennett said.
Meanwhile, as Princeville's population ages, young people ultimately will have to succeed them to keep the town moving forward. Without its own industry or significant commercial outlets, it is difficult to keep younger residents in town.
Luring new business into Princeville will likely involve offering incentives such as tax breaks, the kind that are offered by state governments seeking to land a major manufacturer.
Housing is also an issue. While some homes are being elevated, other homeowners have accepted buyouts from the N.C. Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
Despite the many challenges, those who live in Princeville aren’t ready to give up.
Noble, who came to Princeville with his wife in 1963, thinks of the freed slaves who built Princeville, and what they might say to today’s residents.
“You know, they always said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up,’” he says. And that’s what we got to do. Stick with it. ... You know, we didn’t come this far to turn around.”