Brown:Natalie Bullock Brown; Host
Rowe: Ryan Rowe; producer of the documentary This Side of the River and an instructor at North Carolina State University
Perkins: Delia Perkins, the mayor of Princeville
Wonder:9th Wonder: Musician
Parker: Dr. Freddie Parker; Professor of History at NCCU
Fleming: Monika Fleming; Edgecombe Community College
Mobley: Joe Mobley; NSCU
Knight: Rudolph Knight
F: Unidentified female speaker
M: Unidentified male speaker
Brown: In 1999 Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd collided over North Carolina. In the wake of the storms a small town called Princeville in the eastern region of the state was completely flooded when is levees broke. Eight years later a new film about the town investigates Princeville’s rich history, its status since the flood and the resiliency of its people. We will learn more about what’s happening in Princeville now next on Black Issues Forum.
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Brown: Hello and welcome to Black Issues Forum. I am Natalie Bullock Brown. While the devastation of Hurricane Katrina still remains fresh in our nation’s collective memory the impact of Hurricane Floyd which it in 1999 right here in North Carolina continues to resonate for citizens in the eastern part of our state. A new documentary title This Side of the River captures the history behind one of the towns hardest hit by Hurricane Floyd, Princeville. Over the next half hour we will talk to one of the filmmakers and view a few clips from his documentary. We are honored to have with us Ryan Rowe, producer of the documentary This Side of the River and an instructor at North Carolina State University. We are also very honored to have Delia Perkins, the mayor of Princeville as well as music producer 9th Wonder, a nationally acclaimed artist who created music for the documentary. Now before we get into the discussion let’s take a look at a clip from This Side of the River that sheds light on the town of Princeville.
Fleming: Edgecombe County actually was created for the first time in the 1730s. People started coming down from Virginia after the Indian Wars, the Indian Wars ended about 1715.
Parker: When you look at settlement in North Carolina it starts up in an area that we now call Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It was called Albemarle. We are talking about Pasquotank County, Perquimans, Camden, Chowan and that area.
Fleming: We were the frontier. Tarboro was established in 1760 and it became the county seat officially in 1764. And it became a commercial center so that by 1787 it almost became the capital of North Carolina. It was one of the fastest growing colonial towns inland. We have got Tarboro here. And you can see Tarboro is in the curve of the river. And the river is primarily the waterway, the highway. The river was what made this area.
Parker: And so as white settlers began to move westward across North Carolina, they are bringing the slaves with them. Most of the Africans who came into North Carolina being transshipped, they are coming into Beaufort, into Charleston and Georgetown. And then they are being sold, transshipped to other places in colonial America.
Mobley: Well, the area of Edgecombe County which includes Princeville and Tarboro was in the midst of the blackbelt region of North Carolina. That is it was in the large plantation economy in which there were a large number of slaves. And the area was dominated by a planter aristocracy made up of large slaveholders. They controlled social, economic, political life of the region.
Parker: So blacks are then brought to the eastern part of North Carolina. There was always kind of a viable black community. There was always this invisible institution known as the church, there was a sizable free black population. And they become the basis for greater membership, you know, when slavery comes to an end in 1865.
Brown: So welcome to Black Issues Forum, you guys. I appreciate you being here. We just saw a clip about the history of Princeville. I want to start with Mayor Perkins since you were mayor at the time of the flood and you are currently mayor. What about the history of Princeville did you find perhaps people both locally and nationally did not really understand about Princeville.
Perkins: I don’t think people understood the significance of the history and how the people had persevered and they were just a small group of people that wanted to have something of their own and they decided to settle in this little, small swampland. So people were just proud. And I think that is something that has resonated throughout the community and the whole world now that we are a proud people and that we just like to showcase our history.
Brown: And, Ryan, what was it about Princeville and its history that attracted you to the town and caused you to even want to do an documentary?
Rowe: Well, when I started in Princeville it was as a researcher and I was looking at the unique language history of Princeville. But as I talked to the town and looked for ways to use our research to benefit the town, it became quickly evident that there was just an enormously rich story there that was beyond just the devastation from the flood in 1999. Just a few things as we noticed from that clip the black second congressional district came out of Edgecombe County from the high number of African Americans there because of the slave trade. When it was illegal to vote as a black person in America Princeville was voting for its own mayors and townspeople. So survival, self-determination, just from the beginning to now is just an amazing story that I started to realize not enough people knew about. So we began to work with the town to make this film a reality.
Brown: And, 9th, I got to get you in here. I mean, you have worked with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Jay Z. Princeville, North Carolina, what would cause you to want to be involved in This Side of the River, the documentary project?
Wonder: I was a history major in college, number one. Number two, I am a small town boy from Midway, North Carolina which is on the western side of the state. And, number three, I am a musician so all that tied together. And, Ryan coming to ask me to do some music for the project, I think the best way to get music or the best way to get a message out to a nation, because the Princeville story needs to be heard, is through music. Music has always been a great way to pass a message, when like nobody, when media is not paying attention to things like that. So that’s why I wanted to get involved in it. All those three things combined.
Brown: And, Mayor Perkins, what do you think the film is going to do for Princeville and we do have another clip that we want to show to talk more about the flood. But just in terms of the history and the importance of Princeville, historically, what do you think the film will do now for your area?
Perkins: Well, the film give a lot of other people the opportunity to find out about the history. Princeville’s history was a little known secret. And when the flood came and it started to go national more people that used to live in Princeville had the opportunity to find out, oh, my hometown has got historical value. So the film because we have a lot of people that have bought the film and they passed it on to their relatives in other parts of the country, so the film will make sure that our history sort of goes across the country and that’s good for us.
Brown: We are going to talk a little more a little later on about what sort of vision you and the town have for the future but, Ryan, let me ask you one more question before we go to our clip. And that is when you think about what happened to Princeville do you see any connections between that and Hurricane Katrina?
Rowe: Yeah, those parallels are made a lot when we go out and talk to the community. The Princeville story is very unique and yet is very universal. Throughout the timeline of Princeville you see parallels from sharecropping to disenfranchisement to a pattern from my hometown, Detroit. Black communities settling on the south side of a community or the unwanted part of a community. And then eventually being driven out. So Princeville’s settling on this unwanted floodplain and surviving everything that entails from its very inception is definitely a big part of its story. And so definitely Katrina, FEMA, its involvement, how you recover, how black town, minority communities are treated after disasters and crisis, that is all a part of this story and all—if you look back paralleling other points of the town’s history where maybe Tarboro wanted to annex the town. What it means to just have a self-determined black town and everything that—the kind of uncomfortableness that can come about or how the media treats it. And I definitely see parallels to Katrina. If I just add one thing it would be also looking at all the attention that happens initially and then how do you sustain that attention to actually recover a town from a disaster?
Brown: Well, we are going to talk more about that in a moment but flooding was not new to the eastern part of our state. And through the people of Princeville Ryan talks about the history of flooding in Princeville in this clip.
Rowe: Rudolph Knight, Princeville has had regular floods since the 1700s. So the flood in 1999 was no exception. Were there other floods as devastating as this one?
Knight: Yes, there have as I mentioned earlier the 1919 flood was the most devastating flood before the 1999 flood. But every year Princeville had floods in the spring and sometimes in the fall of the year.
M: Before they built the dyke in Princeville whenever it rained and the river rose, my grandmother used to tell me how they used to have to ride a boat from the other side of Princeville just to come to town because the river rose.
F: It flood all the time like that. See, before they build a dyke then. They used to come by boat when they had to come to Tarboro. And they used to come across Princeville on the boat and just the chimneys was sticking out.
F: The last flood that I remember before Floyd was the 1958. We had to leave home then because I couldn’t get to the stores or anything.
F: The water came up in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s. I remember the ‘50s. Washed the house out. They dried it out, sun, the water went down and then they went back to live in it.
[END OF FILM CLIP]
Brown: Ryan, let me ask you, the two gentleman at the beginning of the clip, can you tell us who they were, the one that was at WUNC being interviewed and then the man that followed him directly.
Rowe: I believe you are referring to Rudolph Knight was the man being interviewed. He is the President of the __ Historical Society. He was a chief historical consultant on this film. A big supporter of what it takes to really preserve history in a town like Princeville especially there are not being a lot of physical evidence left if you are flooded every 20 years. So you don’t have the old bibles and the old pictures. So oral history is so crucial. Musical history is so crucial to preserving the story and I apologize. I am not sure who the second person was.
Brown: Well, I believe it was one of the residents. He had a white shirt on. But it’s okay. But let’s talk about this history of flooding in the area. I believe I remember in the bio about the town that it’s refereed to or Hurricane Floyd is referred to as a 500 year flood or the flooding that happened is referred to as a 500 year flood. What does that mean?
Rowe: Well, the mayor might be able to speak to this as well but my understanding is that the conditions that happen to create the kind of flooding that happened in Princeville, the likelihood would be once every 500 years. You had two floods, you had the Tar River at a certain flood stage already. Then you had Hurricane Floyd come after that. And some things with the levees. Just all the conditions came together weren’t very likely at all. It was almost sort of if you would biblical proportions.
Brown: Similar to Katrina. Mayor Perkins, so living in Princeville and experiencing regular flooding, how does a town deal with having to constantly recover and then—what’s the word—sort of brace itself for the next flood, the ultimate or the inevitable next flood?
Perkins: Well, most of the people in Princeville have been a resident down through the years and it is __ generation thing. And they love Princeville. I have been in Princeville for a long time, not as long as some. But this is the first time that I have ever experienced a flood in Princeville. I have heard about the others: 1919, 1958, but every time the people seemed to love where they are living enough to come back and rebuild. And that’s why after Hurricane Floyd came through and totally put the town under water, we wanted to come back, we needed to come back. There was no other place for us to go. And this is the way people feel. However, there are always a few people that don’t want to come back but the majority of the people wanted to come back, they wanted to film this piece of land that their ancestors had and most of the people own the land in Princeville so they didn’t want to give up the land, they like the river. And sometimes the river can be an enemy but most of the time the river was a friend because a lot of people did a lot of fishing. And there are lots of wild game down by the river. So it’s a friend but when Hurricane Floyd came by it became the enemy. But even with that it was a blessing. So the people love the land, love where they are living and don’t want to go anywhere else.
Brown: 9th, how do you incorporate the feelings of the people, the flooding, everything that happened in the wake of Hurricane Floyd into the music that you wrote for This Side of the River and where do we hear that, what you wrote in the course of the film?
Wonder: Just judging by the history of music even from slavery times. When it was time for everybody to, you know, want to get to the underground railroad it was always sang through spirituals. Even going through the times of Woodstock and the whole Haight-Ashbury movement in San Francisco everything was through music, through the whole peace thing, through say it loud, I am black and I’m proud, every major movement in history was always accompanied by music. So I guess the inspiration came from those times to do it through Princeville as well. There is a lot of young people in Princeville that don’t have a voice. So the voice of the younger generation right now is hip hop. It was the voice of my generation as well and now you have s situation where you have three generations. You have the older generation, you have a younger generation and you have my generation which is like a Spike Lee type generation, a true school generation where hip hop was a major voice for me. Chuck D was a major voice for me when I had one for myself. So I kind of channel all of that to the music made for Princeville.
Brown: So what you did for the film is sort of you taking a stand for the youth who don’t have necessarily a voice.
Wonder: Right, and I also use it as a bridge. Some of the music that we use for the music for Princeville is sometimes using samples, and those samples come from the ‘70s. So that is a way you can bridge the generations. You may use the O’Jay’s record with a young guy rapping over it and that kind of bridges a father and a son or just two generations together.
Brown: Right, right. Well, I want to stress that the film is not really about the flood so much as the people and the town and the rich history. And we need to know what’s going on now with Princeville, Ryan? You know, what sort of resurgence have you or actually when you first went down there did you discover and what’s been happening since and of course I want Mayor Perkins to address that as well.
Rowe: Yeah, it’s truly been a partnership between myself, my co-director, Jude Grimes, and the town from every step of the process to make sure that we are truly representing what the town says it needs and what—
Brown: In terms of the film?
Rowe: In terms of what’s in the film, in terms of how we use the film, in terms of everything that we do going forward. We are always trying to get the best kind of assessment of what the town says it needs.
Brown: And what does it need?
Rowe: Well, one thing that has come about, as the mayor was talking about, this national attention to the town. The old town hall that was destroyed by the flood is going to be restored as the African American History Museum and Visitors Center. That is going to have its grand opening ion February 20th of 2008. And we are going to try and use that as an outlet to engage the youth in some of this and giving them voice as a youth leadership development using the arts to give them—maybe they present their own documentaries on the town in this new museum. But those are our two main focus areas as an outreach through the film, is to reach back to the leadership development for the future of Princeville and also to make sure that this history museum has everything it needs to be a source of information as people become more aware of the town.
Brown: Mayor Perkins, what is your vision for the future and I know you were just re-elected to mayor in 2006. So what sort of things, you know, when you weren’t mayor did you observe that perhaps helped the town to move forward and now what do you want to do in your position to help it continue to move forward?
Perkins: Well, the first thing that I would love for Princeville to do is to get some economic development. At one point we did have about 37 businesses. After the flood all of those businesses did not come back. And we really need to have the economic development so that the people in Princeville will be able to buy the products that they need without having to go into another town which will be an economic base for the town to be able to do some of the other things that we need to do like hire more police officers, to work on the water system, to keep the town up, the grass and all that stuff up. But the major thing is I want Princeville in the future to be known for its history. Not for the flooding, but known for the history that it has. I want it to be known for those citizens that came across the river and saw the Union soldiers and felt that they could be free and those are the things I want Princeville known for. Not for the flood even though the flood has brought quite a bit of attention to Princeville but I want it to be known for the history and I hope that in the future that tourism and the history will be the vehicle that will make Princeville a household name. When you hear Princeville you will say history and the intriguement of the history that you would want to buy a record or you want to buy a film or you want to come to Princeville and see about this town that is the oldest town incorporated by blacks in the United States of America. And those are the kinds of things that we are working on. However, economic development is the vehicle that we need to push all of these other things across.
Brown: Well, how do you get the economic, you know, the financial backing that you need to development the tourism and to develop the town and market the town so that people do know about the history?
Perkins: Well, the museum is one of the vehicles that we plan to use. We are in the process now of waiting for the museum to open up. Plus, we have to hire someone to run that museum that will be able to incorporate the history and get it out on the web, to set up webpages, to be able to go out and talk to people about Princeville and bring—hopefully, they will bring their ideas in for economic development. That’s the major thing that we need to do now is to put those vehicles out to try and bring in some type of economic development that the people can use. Also those vehicles that will send out the history about Princeville and that is what Ryan’s been doing and it’s been great since the film has come out. We have had quite a bit of people to come in or call and ask about the film. We have had __ unions to come in and want to see the film and to buy the film. So those are the kind of things that we are working on right now and I have about two years on my term left. So I am trying to get as many things done as I possibly can before it is time for re-election.
Brown: 9th Wonder, let me ask you, I know it helps tremendously to have your name attached to the film and for you to be interested in Princeville but what can you do personally as a musician, as an artist to help Princeville in all that the mayor just outlined?
Wonder: Well, reach out, reach out to different artists that I have worked with throughout the years to bring national attention to the situation. Like I said, not only just the flood and just the history, just the fact that it is the first town incorporated by blacks in the Untied States is we get artists interested in and working with me on this particularly project. So that is what I am trying to do right now.
Brown: And tell us about True School and how that might be a vehicle that could be used to help Princeville.
Wonder: Well, True School is the bridge. True School is a bunch of late 20, early 30 year old men and women that feel like they are stuck in the middle between the older generation and the younger generation and the older generation is saying, okay, you like the same hip hop as my 17 year old and the younger generation says you listen to the music that my parents. That is not the case. We are stuck in the middle but at the same time we came up in a generation where we had a different world and the Cosby Show and all the great Spike Lee movies. It kind of gets us motivated to do things and that’s what True School is about. And all of my friends, dentists, doctors, lawyers, musicians, can go down to Princeville and talk to different kids and give them a voice to say you don’t have to go this way. You can go this way and still be “cool” so to speak. So that is what the hip hop generation taught me and I am trying to extend that to the next generation. That’s what True School is.
Brown: Great. Thank you. And, Ryan, quickly, can you tell us how people can find out more about the film, where they can go to purchase it if they are interested?
Rowe: Sure. There will be a lot of opportunities in the new year. We are of course, gearing up for the opening at the museum. You can find more information at thissideoftheriver.org in terms of our outreach using the film. All the information about the town’s efforts and 9th Wonder’s music project which is still in process can be found there. On February 9th the capital building is going to sponsor a screening of the film from 10:00 to 12:00 at the history museum. There will be more information there and then of course we will have lots of events around the 20th. So that is going to be the biggest way to be involved.
Brown: Thank you so much. We really appreciate all three of you being here and, Mayor Perkins, we know that Princeville is going to rise. It’s going to do what you are hoping it will do and we will do what we can to help you out with that.
Perkins: Thank you.
Brown: You are welcome. And if you would like to get in touch with our guests or obtain a copy or transcript of tonight’s show, visit us online at UNCTV.org/BIF. And when you visit be sure to give us your comments and program suggestions. You can also call us on the BIFline at 919-549-7167. For Black Issues Forum, I am Natalie Bullock Brown reminding you to be encouraged no matter what. Have a good one.
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