(The documentary that I saw on this town repeatedly stated that Princeville was the first incorporated town in America, period. Other information keeps stating that it was the first incorporated Black town; so, you know how they do.) Anyway, this town had it's own government, school, jail, court, fire department, everything that any town normally has, without the involvement (or interference) of Whites, and without any outside (government) assistance.
Princeville, North Carolina is the oldest incorporated Black town in the United States. It is located in the Coastal Plain region of eastern North Carolina and lies just south of the Tar River from the county seat of Tarboro in Edgecombe County. Settled just after the Civil War in 1865, Princeville was originally called Freedom Hill by the freed slaves who had gathered on this Tar River flood plain seeking refuge at a Union Army camp that was located there.
One of the Freedom Hill settlers, Turner Prince, born a slave in 1843, was instrumental in the early settlement and would eventually have the town named after him. Like many others, Prince used the skilled trade he had learned in slavery, carpentry, to build a free community for his family and other former slaves. In 1873 he bought a half-acre lot and built a modest house for his wife, Sarah, and their children Ephraim, Sarah and Cora. Turner Prince symbolized the struggle to move from slavery to self-sufficiency and the deep reverence for land ownership and independence held by this freed-slave community. In 1885 Freedom Hill was officially incorporated and, in honor of the man involved in the building of so many of the town's homes, renamed by its citizens as Princeville.
Throughout its history, Princeville has endured racial intimidation, economic and social isolation, and repeated flooding (e.g. 1800, 1865, 1889, 1919, 1924, 1940, and 1958), but it has steadfastly persisted as a cohesive, all-Black community. After the building of a levee in 1965 to prevent major flooding, the town saw many modern improvements, the expanding of its borders, a growth in population and an increase in the number of businesses. In 1999 a 500-year flood caused by Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd broke the levee and wiped out the town, bringing national attention to the historical and social significance of Princeville as a symbol of African American perseverance and self determination.
Today this 98% African American town of approximately 2,100 people is rapidly rebuilding from the devastation of the flood of 1999 and is very proud of its unique place within African American heritage and United States history. This unique sense of place and solidarity among Princeville's town members, along with the destruction of physical historical documents from the flooding of its past, made it an ideal community in which to begin the preservation of oral history. In August of 2003, NCLLP began to work with the Princeville community to collect a growing number of interviews with long-time residents.
Kendall, Tyler. 2007. 'The people what makes the town': The semiotics of home and town spaces in Princeville, North Carolina. North Carolina Folklore Journal, 54.1.: 33-53.
Rowe, Ryan. 2005. The Development of African American English in the Oldest Black Town in America: Plural –s Absence in Princeville, North Carolina. Master’s Thesis. Raleigh: North Carolina State University.
Our extension efforts in Princeville culminated in the recent premiere and release of This Side of The River, a documentary which incorporates interviews with Princeville residents and North Carolina historians to tell the story of Princeville’s survival through racial prejudice, economic hardship and near-permanent destruction by the flood from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Within an ever-changing southern Black identity, the people of Princeville demonstrated communal support through religious, political and economic self-determination.
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