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Historic Black town faces uncertain, stormy future

Incorporated in 1885, Princeville, North Carolina, claims the distinction of being the oldest town in the nation chartered by African-Americans   -  
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Some of 74-year-old Betty Cobb's earliest and fondest memories involve the swirling waters of the Tar River.

"Being baptized down at the foot of the bridge," she says. "The dike is there now. But we used to cut right down there and go right to the river."

But those same waters that gave her salvation as a child have brought her tremendous heartache as an adult _ taking her home, not once, but twice. So, why does she stay?

"It was the love for Princeville," she says. "For the town itself. My roots."

Incorporated in 1885, Princeville, North Carolina, claims the distinction of being the oldest town in the nation chartered by African-Americans.

"Our forefathers built a town out of absolutely nothing but swampland," two-term Mayor Bobbie Jones says with pride. "They shed their blood, sweat and tears on these sacred grounds."

The settlement, originally known as Freedom Hill, grew up around a Union Army camp on the south bank of the Tar River, where escaped slaves sought protection in the waning days of the Civil War. The town was later renamed in honor of former slave Turner Prince, a carpenter who built many of the town's first structures.

Jones says the founders chose the low-lying site, not because it was the best location, but because it was all the former slaves could afford.

"It was absolutely worthless," he says. "Nobody wanted it. Nobody could see anything positive for the future of the swampland."

Instead, Princeville thrived, surviving attempts by majority-white Tarboro across the river to have its charter revoked.

But there's one force Princeville could not hold back _ rising floodwaters, despite construction of a massive levee in the 1960s. And experts say climate change will only bring stronger and more frequent storms.

"When it floods, and the water level rises and starts to come over the bank, the water wants to go somewhere," says Col. Benjamin A. Bennett, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Wilmington District, which is responsible for flood control in Princeville. "And it wants to naturally go where the town of Princeville currently exists."

Princeville has flooded many times since its founding. But Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was an existential crisis.

"When Floyd came, it seemed like the end of the world," says Alex Noble, 84, who moved there more than a half century ago.

Noble's house is about a mile from the river, and still got several feet of water inside.

"It seemed like you just were turned outdoors," the Navy veteran says. "You know, everything was wide open."

In 2016, the Corps unveiled plans to extend the levee, raise roads and install gates on culverts that had allowed water to pass through the dike.

Not long after that announcement, Hurricane Matthew struck.

The new home that Betty Cobb and her husband Clarence built after Floyd had water halfway up the walls.

"The first time was devastating," she says, her head down. "And the second time, I don't even know if I can describe it."

In 2019, Congress authorized nearly $40 million to fund the Princeville flood protection upgrades.

"And here we are in 2022," says Mayor Jones. "And yet the plows are still not in the ground."

Bennett says updated computer modeling showed that the Princeville plan would have created flooding issues in other areas. With another hurricane season looming, Bennett says engineers are working "every day" to find a solution.

"We need to come up with a better design or see what we could do to try and make sure that we can still protect the citizens of Princeville, without creating unintended consequences elsewhere," he says.

But Bennett says nothing the Corps does will guarantee Princeville won't flood again.

In fact, a 2014 draft study concluded that, "Protecting the Town of Princeville from a `Floyd event' would almost assuredly involve raising the existing levee and/or construction of a ring levee around the Town." The cost, the report said, would be "in the $200 million range, more than can be justified and more than the state or community can afford."

And, so, the historic town is embracing that future.

The senior citizens center was rebuilt atop sturdy brick arches, well above historic flood levels. And work recently began on the first of more than five dozen elevated homes.

The town has purchased two tracts of land outside the traditional flood zone for residential and commercial development, just off the future route of Interstate 87

"We're talking about a truck stop, and a hotel and as many businesses that we can get out here so that we'll catch the traffic off the expressway," Mayor Pro Tem Linda Joyner said recently as vehicles roared past one of the sites.

Today, very little remains of historic Princeville.

The latest Census puts the town's population at 1,254, a steep decline from a decade earlier. The government has purchased about two dozen flood-prone properties for demolition, with more buyouts pending.

Alex Noble is betting on Princeville's future.

"You know, we shouldn't give up," he says. "You know, we didn't come this far to turn around."

But Betty Cobb isn't sure she has the strength to rebuild a third time.

"Every time it rains, you, heavy rain comes, you get a little afraid and you hear of it flooding in other places," says Cobb, who was born and raised in Princeville. "Right now it's, we're living on chance and prayer."

Still, when government people came to discuss a buyout, she told them she wasn't interested.

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