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,” says Bandy, 65. “We have roots in this city.”

Yet Princeville, on the banks of the Tar River in eastern North Carolina, is one hurricane away from disaster.

The land was flooded several times. Two hurricanes 17 years apart created catastrophic flooding in the city, which was built on marshy, low-lying land in a bend in the river. And the weather isn’t the only thing that has rocked Princeville over the decades. He endured racism, bigotry and attempts by white neighbors to wipe him off the map and out of existence.

Today, with climate change, the future is more uncertain than ever. Hurricanes are likely to be more intense. Melting glaciers cause 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.

“This is hallowed ground for African Americans,” says two-term Princeville mayor Bobbie Jones, using words that echo those of Bandy. “How dare we be asked to move our city?

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When the freed slaves settled on the land that is now Princeville, they did not choose the site because it was the best land. It was all the former slaves 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.

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.

But most dangerous to the survival of Princeville today is its unfortunate location. The city is located in a meander of the Tar River, 200 km from the Atlantic Ocean, at the edge of the coastal plain of North Carolina. When slow-moving storms land and move inland, torrential rains flow into rivers and flood towns along the shores.

An earthen dyke surrounds the town on three sides and has kept nature at bay for more than 30 years. 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, whose home took in several feet of water despite being about a mile from the river . “It looked like you had just been sent outside. You know, everything was wide open.

Firefighter Kermit Perkins, whose mother was mayor at the time, remembers floating past utility poles, the power lines within easy reach of the wooden stick he was carrying.

“At that time, in that boat, you didn’t know what the future held for you,” he says. “You didn’t know if there would be a Princeville or not.”

The US Army Corps of Engineers made plans to expand the seawall to better protect the city. But then, in 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, causing more devastating flooding that left about 80% of the city underwater, according to the Coastal Dynamics Design Lab.

The floods are likely to get worse. Hurricanes will be “wetter and likely to be more intense,” according to a summary of the state’s climate by NC State University, and melting glaciers are likely to raise sea levels.

Now, with a nearly $40 million plan to improve the levee, people are hoping for respite from the floods. But with another hurricane season approaching, the 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.

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If there is to be a tomorrow for Princeville, it will rely on two accomplishments: restoring its history and bringing in new blood.

The town is full of single-family homes and an apartment complex interspersed with empty buildings that have been boarded up and abandoned following the last two floods. A church sits with its windows covered in plywood.

Commerce centers on a small strip with a hair salon and liquor store flanking 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.

There is no boat access to the river and an old baptism site is blocked off with a chain-link fence. The municipal park consists of a few outbuildings and a football field with old-fashioned goals. It currently serves as a COVID-19 vaccination site.

As for basic services, you can’t bank, and the last grocery store – called “New Beginnings” – closed in 2017, two years after it opened. There is also a Dollar General store. Although the fire hall has been rebuilt, the town no longer has its own police force and instead relies on deputies from the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office.

Jones thinks the city’s captivating past could be a draw for tourism. Theming a community around its history, after all, has proven lucrative and restorative for many places. But after so many floods, very little of historic Princeville remains.

The clapboard, twin-chimney City Hall stands next to the reconstructed fire station with tattered bits of insulation flapping in the breeze. It is hoped that the building can be turned into a museum.

The Mount Zion Early Baptist Church, with its two front doors and original stained glass windows, was restored after Floyd but flooded again during Matthew. It remains closed, its walls still ripped several feet high, its congregation worshiping in a nearby shrine.

In front of the church stands a marble monument to co-founder Abraham Wooten, whose home on Mutual Boulevard is believed to be the oldest structure in town – parts of it date back to the 1870s. But it remains exposed to the elements, the vines crawling along the eaves and smothering the old stovepipe on the roof.

Historical consultant Kelsi Dew said the city is seeking funds to preserve the house and would like to see it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But in another irony for Princeville, Dew says raising the house above flood levels would make it ineligible for a listing, “because it would compromise the historical context.”

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 an issue: While some homes are elevated, other owners have accepted buyouts from North Carolina’s risk mitigation grant program.

The city purchased two lots totaling 141 acres. There, its leaders hope, will rise new homes and businesses, perhaps a hotel and a truck stop – all near proposed Interstate 87, which is expected to link the state capital of Raleigh to Norfolk, in Virginia.

Even with an improved dike, no one can guarantee that the city will no longer be flooded. It would cost some $200 million, according to a 2014 Corps preliminary study, to truly protect the city from a Floyd-level storm, “more than can be justified and more than the state or community can afford. afford”.

And many struggling cities trying to retain and attract young people have found their efforts insufficient.

Betty Cobb, 74, and another longtime resident, knows that young people are graduating from high school or college and not looking to return.

“Now my grandson and granddaughter, who are graduating this year, have grown up here. All they wanted to do, they had to get out of Princeville,” says Cobb. “So I think until we have things of that nature in place, they won’t, people won’t come back here and raise their children.”

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The challenges are obvious. But give up? Those who live in Princeville are not there. Not yet.

Deborah Shaw has lived all of her 61 years in Princeville, 31 of them working for the sheriff’s office. Even with the lure of a new city and new environment, says Shaw, Princeville reminds her.

“You always want to go somewhere else,” says Shaw. “But you will always return to your original place. And Princeville is my place of origin.

Tracey Knight was in Princeville in 1999 when her family’s trailer park flooded. Knight moved to Georgia in 2005 and returned to the area in 2013. When she opened Tray-Seas Soul Food on Main Street last November, in “one of the most failed places” in town, people thought she was crazy.

“They said no one ever comes here to this building,” Knight explains. “And I was like, ‘Wow. Well, I’m going to be the one to get here.

Why take the risk? “Faith,” she says. “You have to keep the faith.”

And Noble, who came to Princeville with his wife in 1963, thinks about the freed slaves who built Princeville 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 didn’t come this far to turn around.