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Disaster Gives Historic Town a New Birth

by Joshua Hennen

PRINCEVILLE North Carolina - Main Street in this small town of about 2 000 people is paved but resembles a quiltwork of patches and potholes. That’s just fine with residents, however. The road is in the process of being widened and the bridge over the Tar River (which river forms the town’s northern boundary) is being replaced. Main street will be repaved soon enough.

During my recent visit there, I had the opportunity to speak with Enoch Armfield and his mother, Annie Armfield, both long time residents. As Enoch surveyed Main Street from his porch he said, “That flood was the best thing that ever happened to this town.” And indeed, many townsfolk would tend to agree with him.

The Flood of Ages

During the months of September and October of 1999, three hurricanes—Dennis, Floyd, and Irene—deluged eastern North Carolina with 500-year floods or greater. In fact, many rivers remained above flood stage for over two months according to the United States Geological Survey. And Princeville, because of its being founded on a floodplain of the Tar River, saw almost complete annihilation.
With millions of federal and state dollars having flowed into the community since, Princeville has been largely reconstructed.

Speaking about the town before the flood, Enoch continued, “A lot of the houses were made of wood and were abandoned anyway.” Most of those structures were demolished and removed in the aftermath of the hurricanes. So it was no surprise to me that many were optimistic about the future of their hometown. Confirming this, Maggie Boyd, another life long resident and employee of the Princeville Museum/Welcome Center, pointed to many of the houses outside of the museum building and said, “All of the houses that you see today have been rebuilt.” 

A Town of Distinction

Chartered in 1885, Princeville is the oldest town officially founded by blacks. The story of how and why this came to be is just one of the reasons for President Bill Clinton’s executive order (dated February 29, 2000) that not only promised to rebuild Princeville, but to also “create an interagency council to develop recommendations for further actions to address the future of Princeville.”
To understand the significance of this town, one must understand its history. Edgecombe County, where Princeville and the town across the river, Tarboro, are located, was one of North Carolina’s leading cotton producers before the Civil War. Consequently, the area had a large slave population.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, many freed slaves left the countryside of Edgecombe County to seek the protection and aid of the Union soldiers, who were bivouacked on the other side of Tarboro, across the Tar River on a flood plain. It was on this spot that many of the freedmen constructed temporary shelters and initially named the spot Freedom Hill. Even though the newly emancipated slaves were squatters, the area was a swampy floodplain and didn't have much economic value. So when the Union soldiers eventually left, the mainly white leaders of Tarboro didn't mind keeping some of their former property at a safe but convenient distance, both socially and legally.

All of this meant that a 98% black community had to take care of itself. They established a public school in 1883 and then became an incorporated town in 1885, which they named after a city leader and ex-slave Turner Prince (1843-1912). This official legal structure allowed them to better manage their own affairs. And although there were tradesmen and merchants in Princeville proper, most residents were laborers or sharecroppers.

Aftermath of the “Great Flood”

The immediate effects of the hurricanes of 1999 was a picture of sheer destruction. Houses were moved hundreds of yards away and smashed, the carcasses of dead dogs and livestock were everywhere, and caskets had become dislodged from the loose, sandy soil of Princeville’s community cemetery and were deposited wherever the floodwaters decided.
Fortunately, no one from Princeville lost his life in the catastrophe. Annie Armfield credited the local police and fire department for this. These officials evacuated the entire town as reports of the massive flooding came in, she said.

Upon her return weeks later, she was greeted not by the comfortable home that she remembered, but by an uninhabitable wreck. Her son Enoch said it best, “The water was so high that it left a 55 gallon drum wrapped around the chimney on the house.”

He also said that everyone in Princeville is now required to have flood insurance. Not only that, but when the Federal Emergency Management Association, or FEMA, made a 2.5 million dollar grant to the Princeville Housing Authority to rebuild 50 homes, a main office, and a maintenance building, the Housing Authority also purchased a National Flood Insurance policy to cover the values of the new structures.

Efforts are also underway by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Government, the State of North Carolina, and others to reinforce the dike that was constructed in 1965.

A History of Floods

It is difficult to overstate the profound influence that the Tar River has played in the lives of Princeville natives. During my time there, I talked with many older residents who gave me accounts of how they had been initiated into their church by being baptized in that river.

But just as the river can be a gentle place to be baptized, it can also show a darker, more menacing face. Floods inundated the community in the following years: 1865, 1889, 1919, 1924, 1940, 1958, and of course, 1999.

Add to the risk of floods the ever present danger of the diseases that plagued the area at different times, such as malaria, typhoid, and dysentery and one can imagine the hardships that the community faced.
Despite the far from perfect living conditions and the lack of support from the nearby white communities, Princeville made great strides in commerce, education, and city planning. In fact, Princeville had a community cemetery before Tarboro.

But the value of a town run by blacks proved its greatest worth at the close of the nineteenth century. At that time racism became a rampant, burning issue in the white run south. There followed “Jim Crowism” (a system of laws that separated whites from blacks following a “separate but equal” concept that rarely worked as billed), white man’s clubs, and the complete loss of the right to vote for blacks.

Thankfully, Princeville was able to function somewhat independently and protect itself from the acts of violence and intimidation that white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan sometimes inflicted.

There followed decades of self sufficiency until the civil rights movement of the 1960s restored the rights of all Americans to participate fully in self determination.

By the time of the “Great Flood,” Princeville boasted over 40 city streets covering 1.3 miles and had plans for a National Park Service Heritage Trail, as well as a program to upgrade the town’s drainage and sewage system.

Princeville Today

As I stood on the corner of Main Street in the hot sun having finished a few interviews, I decided to approach a group of three older men that were seeking respite in the shade of a roof overhang at a local diner.

I asked them all, “Do you think life has improved in Princeville since Floyd?”
“Princeville ain’t worth a shit,” one man barked. He wore all black clothes except for a light blue fisherman’s hat. He had lost most of his teeth and his wrinkled face resembled a prune. But no sooner did he deride the town than he was roundly and harshly criticized by his companions. A more articulate man with a cane and canary yellow T-shirt complete with blue shorts came to Princeville’s defense.

“Princeville has improved a lot. I’ve been here thirty years and back then these here roads were all dirt. It’s a lot better.” Upon saying this, the third man nodded his head in complete agreement. The first chap kept quiet at that point.

That encounter helped to impress me with the belief that the catastrophe uncovered a formerly hidden if not unfelt pride by locals in being the oldest town in America incorporated by blacks. That sense of heritage seems to have bolstered this community and given them a new resolve to survive. That has always been a challenge. Whether dealing with floods, legal discrimination, or poverty, folks here have managed to do just that, survive.

Princeville’s Future

The Tar River has for so long shaped and molded this community that it is truly hard to imagine that it would not continue to do so.

In the aftermath of the flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Association, or FEMA, offered a massive buyout program to the town. Everyone whose home was destroyed would be compensated at pre-flood levels in return for a promise from the town to not rebuild in the flood plain. To refuse the offer and ask for assistance to rebuild the dike that had been breached by the storm meant that those whose homes were not covered by flood insurance would be left to fend for themselves.

The “take it or leave it” ultimatum caused a national outcry from celebrities, civil rights leaders, newspapers, and politicians. In typical fashion, the town commissioners and the mayor voted 3-2 to rebuild.

Despite the controversy, federal monies were granted nonetheless and has put Princeville on solid footing once again. After the vote, the US Army Corps of Engineers quickly arranged for a local company to repair the dike to pre-flood strength.

When I asked Annie Armfield if she were worried about a flood happening again, she replied without hesitation, “No. I ain’t thought about it.”

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