For most of the last three weeks, I’ve googled the same location, hoping for news that it still exists: Princeville, North Carolina.
I have no personal ties to Princeville, but as the first Black municipality in the United States, Princeville is very significant to me—as a Black North Carolinian, as a scholar of Black geographies, and as a person engaged with the seemingly endless fights for environmental justice in the South.
Princeville was founded in 1885 by groups of newly-freed Black people, who by choice or coercion remained in the South. The town’s existence was in the interest of Black people seeking a place of their own, to build their own churches, schools, and political institutions. The town was also in the interest of White planters in the neighboring town of Tarboro, who were trying to maintain a pool of segregated Black labor for sharecropping and the growing industrial economy. The planters had little interest, of course, in Black independence and a strong local Black polity. With total control of available land in the area, the planters of Tarboro sold the land that became Princeville, a vast floodplain just across the Tar River.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Black places like Princeville are likely to be sites of multiple, intersecting environmental justice struggles. Anyone paying attention in North Carolina knows Princeville is well known for its persistent vulnerability to catastrophic flooding. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Black towns or the Black side of town—from Princeville to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans—knows that the creek often rises in their backyards.
Anyone paying attention in North Carolina knows Princeville is well known for its persistent vulnerability to catastrophic flooding. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Black towns or the Black side of town—from Princeville to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans—knows that the creek often rises in their backyards.
Three weeks ago, Hurricane Florence, like hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Floyd (1999) before her, slammed into eastern North Carolina. She tore through stilted beach houses, collapsing roads, and inundating entire towns. She sent rivers of memories floating beside house debris, cars, and thousands of industry manufactured hogs and chickens, along with their waste, set loose from giant putrid lagoons.
The headlines from the Rocky Mount Telegram to the Anchorage Daily News reflected fears that the worst would happen to Princeville for the third time in 19 years. Residents who rebuilt twice, determined to hold fast to the freedom dreams of the independent Black town, said they would cut their losses if Florence repeated the devastation. And so they waited. And I googled. And after Florence pivoted southwest, sparing the town from the worst of her initial wrath, they waited again for the Tar River to crest from all the rain she left behind, to see if the water would spare them a second time. It did, thankfully. And then the media moved on. Nothing to see here, until the next storm comes, which could be as soon as this week.
But what is scarcely seen or acknowledged is that Black towns, and particularly those founded in the post-Bellum area, were never set up to thrive. This is not for lack of every effort for Black political independence and economic autonomy—hundreds of free Black towns were established across the country to accomplish just that. And it is similarly not for lack of institution-building—Black people established everything from Black banks and Black insurance firms to Black co-ops and Black funeral homes. It is because despite these efforts, Black towns—much like indigenous nations—are still embedded within a political and economic system where the resources and power are controlled by White interests. And as we’ve seen in various ways just in the last decade, White interests do not align well with the causes of Black and indigenous freedoms.
Black towns—much like indigenous nations—are still embedded within a political and economic system where the resources and power are controlled by White interests. And as we’ve seen in various ways just in the last decade, White interests do not often align well with the causes of Black and indigenous freedoms.
Over a century later, towns like Princeville still serve as the labor pool for White places like Tarboro and Rocky Mount. Infrastructure challenges—maintained by state and federal hostility and neglect—mean that their local economies cannot grow. And when local economies cannot grow, populations dwindle, and working-age people move away. Princeville, like most Black towns in North Carolina, has a median age higher than the state. This is not by accident.
In 1965, after Princeville had already suffered seven catastrophic flood events, the Raleigh News & Observer reported the happy news that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of the town’s first river dike, 2.5 miles long. The mayor, Ray Matthewson, proclaimed that the infrastructure signaled a turning point for the struggling town. He hoped to focus on providing “running water” and “sewage disposal” to Princeville, indicating that the town hadn’t “had success about industries, yet” (1). By 1974, however, after years of working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the state government to construct its first water system, Princeville found itself under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), due to an alleged violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The town, nearly 100 percent Black, was accused of attempting to “dilute the Black vote” by annexing an adjacent White community to bolster its tax base, as required by HUD in exchange for funding to build the water system.
[Black towns] are Black family legacies; they are monuments to Black freedom struggles. They are already invaluable to Black futures.
In the town’s defense, the mayor at the time, Ed Bridgers, was forced to conduct a door to door census proving that the town was acting within the law. Princeville’s attorney, then a white man from Tarboro named Martin Cromartie, Jr., told the Raleigh News & Observer that the DOJ investigation was “a criminal assignment of manpower... to avoid use of the manpower in serious matters that need attention” (2). Forty-four years later, the town still lacks a comprehensive modern water and sewer system, as well as the tax base to pay for it; the county government took financial control of the water system in 2014.
Meanwhile, the levee system that began in 1965 was overwhelmed by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and then again during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Rather than build the necessary infrastructure to save the town, and a significant part of Black history, the Federal Emergency Management Agency resorted to buy-outs after Matthew. A buyout of a house in a town with failing infrastructure can’t buy you much elsewhere, which means that many Princeville residents would not only lose family land, but also would not have enough resources to purchase new land on higher ground, thus perpetuating the racial wealth gap that many Black towns were founded to eliminate.
Black towns are not like other places. They are not coastal villages engineered at the expense of Black and poor communities for the recreation of White and wealthy people. They represent a sliver of the massive reparations owed to Black people in the United States and across the African diaspora. They are Black family legacies; they are monuments to Black freedom struggles. They are already invaluable to Black futures. Their ecological vulnerability is a socially imposed burden, not a high-risk commodity. To give them a chance at survival, we must keep them visible, present, and valued before, during, and after the next time the waters rise.
1. Davis, J. W. (1965, April 29). All-Negro Town Banks on Dike to Free it of Floods. The News and Observer.
2. Smith, W. (1974, April 14). Princeville: A Classic Victim of Red Tape. Raleigh News & Observer.