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Celebrating Black History Month in America’s first and only surviving Black-incorporated town: Princeville

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PRINCEVILLE, N.C. - 9 On Your Side is continuing to celebrate Black History Month by taking you to Princeville.

The Edgecombe County town that mirrors Tarboro across the Tar River is the only surviving black-incorporated town in the United States, established by freed African American slaves after the Civil War.

Driving through Princeville, you won’t leave with a strong, lasting impression; not unless you talk with the people who live here.

“This is where we're from,” said Lee Staton, who was born and raised in Princeville.  “This is where we at.  This is where we started at."

You’ll see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices.  People like Lee Staton, born and raised in this town, know how important its history is; they cling to it.

"It's the first thing they'll tell you,” said Pam Edmondson, History and Geological Specialist for the Edgecombe County Memorial Library.    

When someone from Princeville wants to know more about their pas, they cross the bridge into Tarboro to see Pam Edmondson.  "Yearbooks, pictures, that's what I hear is, 'I lost everything in the flood’” she said.

The Great Flood that is.  Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd delivered a blow in 1999 that would leave Princeville under water for two devastating weeks.  A town long-overshadowed by its neighboring cities, now had an undesirable place in headlines seen ‘round the country, even the world.

"If you go 50-75 miles away from here or further, nobody's heard of Tarboro; they've all heard of Princeville because of that flood,” said Dr. Lawrence Auld, Emeritus ECU Faculty Member.

Dr. Auld has studied African American heritage in Edgecombe County for years.  He says Princeville stood apart long before the flood.  "The oldest surviving community incorporated by Blacks in the United States,” Dr. Auld explained about Princeville’s origins.

At the end of the Civil War in 1865 freed African American slaves came here.  The Union troops’ encampment attracted them for many reasons.  Auld pointed to a few: “Protection, shelter, food.”

When the troops pulled out the free men and women stayed, claiming their stake of eastern North Carolina, calling it Freedom Hill- an ironic designation for swampy, low land discarded by many before them.  “It wasn't that good for farming,” said Auld.  “Nobody wanted to live there."

Twenty years later on February 20, 1885 the general assembly chartered the town, officially naming it after its earliest settler, Turner Prince.

Princeville struggled.  Yet, the people were willing to stay.  Why?  Auld suggests they never thought of their community in a physical sense.  But rather, something like this, "We as a group used to be enslaved,” he said.  “We are now free and we can have our own homes.  We're here. Freedom in that sense."

It’s known as the first and it wasn’t the only Black-incorporated town in a country climbing out of Civil War.

 “But many of them no longer exist,” said Auld.  “And Princeville though is surviving, barely though, but surviving."

Fast-forward to Floyd.  When the water receded scattered ruins remained and the population dropped by half, stripping the town of its budget and families of their homes.  It didn't last long.  The people of this town by the river came back to their roots and back to Freedom Hill.  Now, Mayor Bobby Jones told 9 On Your Side's Andrea Blanford off camera, it's all a matter of making Princeville great again.

He’s partnering with Lee Staton, founder of The Helping Hands Club of Princeville.  It’s a group of volunteers that heads out every Saturday to clean up the town and beautify their neighborhoods.  It’s a series of projects Staton says is more about cleaning up morale than cleaning up debris.

“You gotta have some pride with that,” said Staton.  “You know, if you think about the things and the struggles and how it all started and how it began and how you want it to end, it gotta make you feel good.  You know, we never wanted our town to go anywhere when it was like 25 feet under water.   We didn't want it to go nowhere.  We wanted to come back home.  And we did.”

Mayor Jones and Staton are working to beautify the town now, so they can rely on their rich history to draw in tourists down the road.

On February 20th, Princeville will turn 129 years old.  Mayor Jones tells us committees are already hard at work, planning a big celebration for next year when the first Black-incorporated town in the country will turn 130.
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