Climate change

Climate change threatens historic NC town founded by black Americans

Tom Foreman Jr.

PRINCEVILLE, NC — As she exits her hometown’s only restaurant with an order of cabbages and hush puppies, Carolyn Suggs Bandy stops to brag about a spot that lays claim to the oldest town in charter by black Americans nearly 140 years ago.

“It’s sacred to me,” Bandy, 65, said. “We have roots in this city.”

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 further flooding inevitable.

With every calamity comes a suggestion: maybe the city should pick up and move to safer ground. Many residents, however, say Princeville should — must — stay put. In this land they see connections – both with a shared history and an ongoing struggle for survival.

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The future of Princeville rests not only on protecting the city against flooding, but also on the conviction of younger generations to settle in the city. The latest U.S. census puts the city’s population at 1,254, which marks a steep drop from 2010. The median income is $33,325 in 2020.

Winning new residents will require providing opportunities that are worth moving or convincing young families to stay.

Two-term mayor Bobbie Jones, a full-time principal who lives in Princeville and commutes an hour each way to work in Hertford County, says history compels him — and others – to work for the survival of his city.

“This is sacred ground for African Americans,” Jones said, using words that echo Bandy’s. “How dare we be asked to move our city?”

When former slaves settled on the marshy, low-lying land that is now Princeville, they did not choose the site because it was the best ground. It was all they could afford.

“It was absolutely worthless,” says Jones, who grew up just outside the city limits. “Nobody wanted it. No one could see anything positive for the future of the swamp.

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Mayor Bobbie Jones overlooks the Tar River from an earthen levee in Princeville, North Carolina, Thursday, March 17, 2022. Jones, a full-time school principal who lives in Princeville and commutes an hour each way to get to work in Hertford County, says history forces him and others to work for the survival of his town. "These are sacred grounds," said Jones. "This is African American sacred ground." (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Despite the poor location, the city prospered, growing from a population of 379 in 1880 to 552 at the turn of the 20th century. It had a school, churches and many businesses. The 2020 U.S. Census estimated the city’s population at 1,254, a sharp drop from a decade earlier.

The city, incorporated in 1885, is called the oldest city chartered by black Americans. Other cities are also making this request. Princeville—named for Turner Prince, an African-American carpenter who was born into slavery and became one of the town’s first residents—survived multiple attempts by white neighbors to have its charter revoked.

The city has endured racism, bigotry and is trying to erase it from existence.

Today, Princeville has single-family homes interspersed with empty homes that were boarded up and abandoned following the last two floods. A church sits with its windows covered in plywood.

Commerce centers on a small strip where a hair salon and liquor store flank a convenience store where residents can buy snacks, buy lottery tickets, and fill up on gas. A separate building houses the small sit-down restaurant where Bandy got his food.

William Johnson cuts hair at Bridgers Barber salon in Princeville, North Carolina on Thursday, March 10, 2022. The barber shop is one of the few businesses in the small community that was started by freed slaves.  (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Princeville is in bad shape with hurricanes due to its position on the Tar River. The city sits 200 miles from the Atlantic Ocean on 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 land and move inland, torrential rains that can extend far from the storm sewer core pour into rivers and inundate towns along the banks.

If it’s not hurricanes, sea levels could pose a threat, according to a summary of the state’s climate by NC State University.

Melting glaciers add more water to the ocean, and seawater increases in volume as it warms, the report says.

Attempts to protect the city from flooding have been mixed.

In 1967 the Army Corps of Engineers completed an earthen levee along the south bank of the Tar. Nearly 3 miles long and up to 49 feet above sea level, the seawall surrounds the city on three sides.

For more than 30 years, he kept nature at bay. Then, in September 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit.

Swelled by the rain, driven by the winds, the tar swept over, around and even under the dyke, carrying the houses from their foundations and the dead from their graves.

“When Floyd arrived, it felt like the end of the world,” says Navy veteran Alex Noble, 84.

A boat ramp sign is submerged in the Tar River as it rises following heavy rain in Princeville, North Carolina, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The river continues to be a threat for the small community nestled in the floodplain of the River Tar.  (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In the spring of 2016, after years of study, the Corps announced plans to try to prevent another disaster. The dike would be extended, the roads would be raised, and gates would be installed in the culverts to prevent water from crossing the dike.

Just months after that announcement, Hurricane Matthew hit, and with it more devastating flooding.

In response, Congress approved nearly $40 million to better protect the city. The money was earmarked in 2020, but with another hurricane season approaching, work has yet to begin. Updated computer modeling revealed that the original plan would have caused flooding in other areas. The body tries to find a better design.

The delay frustrated Jones, as he said during the recent virtual Founders Day celebration.

“If they can do it in the 1800s, we can definitely do it in 2022,” Jones said that day. “Our ancestors did not give up. Therefore, we can never give up.”

Despite the delays, Col. Benjamin A. Bennett, commander of Corps’ Wilmington, NC, District, said Princeville is a priority.

“We have a team of engineers every day and a lot of our district is focused on Princeville. We are actively refining our design and trying to optimize the engineering, and running models to make sure we are protecting Princeville without causing harm. problems elsewhere,” Bennett said.

Meanwhile, as Princeville’s population ages, young people will eventually have to succeed them to move the town forward. Without its own industry or significant business opportunities, it is difficult to keep young residents in town.

Attracting new business to Princeville will likely involve offering incentives such as tax breaks, the kind offered by state governments looking to land a large manufacturer.

Housing is also a problem. While some homes are elevated, other homeowners have accepted buyouts from North Carolina’s Risk Mitigation Grant Program.

Despite the many challenges, the residents of Princeville are not ready to give up.

Noble, who came to Princeville with his wife in 1963, thinks about the freed slaves who built the town and what they might say to residents today.

“You know, they always said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up,'” he says. “And that’s what we have to do. Stick with it. … You know, we haven’t come this far to turn back.”