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Founded in 1885, Princeville, North Carolina is the nation's first independently governed African American community.

The Destruction of Princeville,
the Nation's Oldest
Black-Governed Community

by Frank Dexter Brown
EarthAfrica News Service

Princeville, North Carolina was founded in 1865 on the banks of the Tar River by formerly enslaved Africans at the end of the Civil War. Chartered in 1885, it is the nation's first independently governed African American community. In 1999, much of Princeville as lost when flooding from back-to-back hurricanes devastated the city. The city's 2,100 residents, many of them descendants of the original settlers, found their homes submerged under water for two weeks. They lost virtually everything.

The story of the Princeville flood is one of government neglect and even malfeasance. Even before the flooding, the waterfront town had been under pressure by developers and land speculators to sell its land and relocate residents further inland. After the disaster, residents were then pressured by both federal and local government to abandon the area. Residents were suspicious—particularly when similarly situated white communities in the region were receiving large sums of money for rebuilding, not relocation.

In Princeville it was a different story. Some six months after the storm, only 100 of the city's 875 families had moved back into their homes. More than 300 families still lived at the sprawling temporary camper park nicknamed "Camp Depression," or "FEMAville," after the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which set up the camper park immediately after the flooding. Here the displaced made do with makeshift housing on a landfill next door to a women's prison outside of the City of Rocky Mount. Almost a year later, many were still waiting for assistance. The nearly 260 families that left the campsite were still living in campers, though this time on their own property as they began the slow process of rebuilding.

Floods devastated Princeville's homes, churches, businesses, and cemeteries.

Princeville's business community—comprising 30 or so small businesses — was virtually leveled. And the town's historic churches were also severely affected including Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, founded in 1876 with the sanctuary built in 1895. Mt. Zion today remains one of the oldest African American houses of worship in the state. It was the only one of the town's six churches not to be torn-down.

If the destruction of homes, churches and businesses weren't enough, the town was totally devastated by the impact of the flooding on the centuries-old Dancy, Wilson and Community cemeteries: 224 caskets and crypts were dislodged. Critical emergency assistance was provided by the federal government's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), which helped to secure and rebury the caskets, and restore the cemeteries.

Although residents accepted that the hand of God in part dictated their fate, it was confirmed months later that God received some "assistance" from the nearby local government of Rocky Mount. The city had the flood gates opened to the upstream Tar River Reservoir Dam just 20 miles away.

Said Peter Varney, Rocky Mount's assistant city manager, in an interview with a UNC-TV reporter (broadcast December 6, 1999), "We were just wrapped up in an unbelievable flood of decisions, and problems, and issues. We just went ahead and dropped that, that gate. It appeared to us that what would come by lowering the gate by two feet would not be noticeable."

Although the city stood by its action in subsequent interviews, it has not answered how much water had been released through their actions, or why they had not communicated to any officials downstream, or to the state, that they were opening up a floodgate. State officials were quick in issuing a statement of support of the Rocky Mountain managers within days of the flooding. "That was a prudent way to operate the spillways," said Charles Gardner, director of the North Carolina Division of Land Resources, which oversees some 5,000 dams statewide. "It is also extremely unlikely that the decision to open the spillways significantly increased downstream flooding in the Princeville area."

But Gardner later said that he had not visited the site and based his statement on what he was told by Rocky Mount officials. Six months after the storm, no official report by any government body (county, state or federal) had been issued to evaluate how much water was released, or review the Rocky Mount actions.

This lack of communication from Rocky Mount, the quick support of Rocky Mount by the state, along with the years of speculators pressuring residents to sell their property, raised residents' suspicions. The flood seemed particularly ill timed given the town's pending historic designation, a status that many residents believed would bring desperately needed tourism dollars (an effort opposed by some neighboring and statewide forces). By the time the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in, tensions were at a climax.

It has been a stormy road to recovery but Princeville residents are buoyed the outpouring of support spurred by the Black press and local leaders like Congresswoman Eva Clayton, Mayor Delia W. Perkins and others who have spoken nationally in order to raise public awareness of the community's plight. In addition to support from private individuals, faith institutions and other non-governmental organizations, Congress has provided the US Army Corps of Engineers with the $500,000 needed to repair a flood prevention levee built in 1967. Former President Clinton did establish the "President's Council on the Future of Princeville," and set-aside an additional $1.5 million to be used to further study the construction of the dike and evaluate the flow of waters along the Tar River. Although government support is welcome, it is a long way from the estimated $80 million required to complete rebuilding and flood proofing and still significantly less than the public support allocated to predominantly white communities in the region.

Princeville residents are concerned about equity in both recovery funding and participation in the process. "People of color communities are often left out of the land use planning piece," said Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) president Gary R. Grant. Adding that African Americans have sought inclusion in such activities for years but "little regard is given to zoning rules that allow this type of unsafe development to take place in flood plains, and the impact on what is usually a community of color. It behooves the Black community to make sure that certain items are attained in any legislation passed that is going to be affecting us."

-- April 9, 2001

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