As we celebrate Black History Month, we venture down to Princeville, the oldest town chartered by blacks in America. Nestled next to the Tar River in Edgecombe County, we take a closer look at the history and mystery of this small North Carolina town.
PRINCEVILLE — It was 1865, and the Union soldiers declared victory over the South. The defeat of the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War gave approximately 4 million slaves their freedom. These men and women with newfound freedom needed somewhere to go, somewhere to live, and somewhere to call home.
Follow the Tar River down to Edgecombe County where there was water, land, and a little bit of swamp the white men no longer needed.
“It was nothing but swamp land, the white men didn’t want the freed slaves to live in Tarboro (the county seat), but wanted them to live close enough to come to work for them,” said Calvin Adkins, Princeville native and historian.
‘Freedom Hill’ the freed slaves called it. The white men saw this land as not being valuable so they offered it to the slaves for a place to live. Looking at a swamp of nothing, the black men began to make something. The black men chopped down trees to make homes, and the freed slaves continued to come.
“Slaves crossed the river to come here. Slaves came from all over Edgecombe County,” said Adkins.
One freed slave who found his way to Freedom Hill was Turner Prince. A Pitt County native, he was a talented carpenter who assisted in the building of homes as well as the Town of Tarboro’s courthouse at the time. Twenty years removed from slavery, the freed slaves went to Congress to ask for a charter for the town.
“We know the slaves who went to Congress were smart and had help, but we don’t know who helped them,” said Adkins.
Slaveholders were opposed to educating their slaves, but these slaves who went to Congress had become educated and the mystery remains as to who and how. As the tale goes, the freed slaves appeared before Congress and were originally turned down. Congress wanted this new town to be named for President James Garfield.
“The slaves said no. It took a lot of strength and courage for these freed slaves to stand up to Congress,” said Adkins. “Eventually, the slaves won the argument.”
In 1885, Freedom Hill became incorporated as Princeville, having been named after Turner Prince. Though Prince continued to play an important role in the Town of Princeville, he remains a mystery.
The details of his life are lost. It is rumored he built a house and lived on Main Street in the largest home in town. Floods have long ago destroyed what could have been this historical home. More so, the details of his death and even his body are missing.
“We have looked and searched for decades, but we can’t find his grave. Which is disappointing,” said Adkins.
One of the town’s most esteemed residents seems to have vanished. A grave marker? Maybe a wood marker? There isn’t even a photograph of him.
“We’ve not given up hope. Someone somewhere may have an artifact, pictures, or more information that may have moved away from Princeville,” said Adkins.
Flood waters have silently crept through the town since the 1700s. One major flood came in 1867, shortly after the town was incorporated.
“The land was no good, but the people didn’t have anywhere else to go. Despite the floods, the people continued to stay,” said Adkins. “Princeville has always been filled with determined people, proud people.”
In the 1900s, the Town of Princeville was self-sufficient with stores and businesses lining the main street.
“You didn’t go across the bridge into Tarboro for much except to work,” said Adkins.
Back during the mid-1920s, as the legend is told, wealthy businessman Orren James was mayor and owned two popular stores.
One day, as the river began flooding the town, James gathered his money in stacks, placed them in his boat and was last seen floating down the Tar River never to have been heard from again.
Historical documents, photographs, and evidence of a town established by freed slaves disappears a little more each time the water washes through town. The people of Princeville know their history, share stories through storytelling, and are proud of where they come from. They don’t need a historical marker or document to tell them. They remain resilient and dedicated to returning to the place freed slaves built.
“This is home. This is our history here,” said Adkins. “If God wants water, he’ll send water. But look at what the slaves went through to get this land. They made something out of nothing.”