The Historic Black Town Gradually Being Washed Away


Climate change affects everyone, but in the immediate aftermath of “natural” disasters, the poorest among us suffer the most. In Splinter’s new series, Fault Lines, we explore the many ways our society’s most vulnerable people get hurt by climate-related crises.

For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone

—Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival”

On the early October afternoon in 2016 when Hurricane Matthew breached the shorelines of eastern North Carolina, I was 22 and preparing clipboards for a full day of voter registration. My goal was to knock on every door along the western edge of a predominantly black neighborhood before settling into a night of recruitment calls. A paper schedule, pinned to my office door, listed the names of three volunteers I’d enlisted days earlier under the 1 p.m. time slot.

As the storm drew closer, it became clear that only one volunteer would actually show and I was conflicted about bringing him into the storm. His name was Mr. Allen and, like many Wilson residents, he was concerned how a win for Donald Trump would affect his job, family, and the black community altogether. So in the pouring rain, and in the middle of a hurricane, he joined me in my perilous—and admittedly foolish—attempt to register voters.

But Mr. Allen and I were not alone. Prior to his arrival, I noticed a black woman sitting on one of Wilson County’s park benches in an open field opposite my office. Had it not been for a bolt of lightning and a loud clap of thunder, I never would have looked out my office window and in her direction. Out of curiosity—or some conceited desire to save a life—I crossed the street to investigate the benched woman. The closer I came to her, the more noticeable her swaying and more audible her humming became, as if she were calmly anticipating rapture rather than a hurricane. It did not take long to deduce that the woman, whose name I never learned, had nowhere else to go.

I walked over to the woman and smiled a toothy grin to signal my sympathy, then asked if she’d follow me inside. I extended my hand and after a beat she gripped it tightly. With a jolt of effort, she raised herself from the bench, leveraging her body weight between her cane and my right arm. She moved mostly in silence, save for when she uttered a soft “Sure” when I asked if I could hold her backpack.

The bag, though caked in dirt, was bright pink and adorned with cartoonish shapes. To my surprise, it weighed several pounds. As we crossed the street back to my office, I caught a whiff of the woman’s miasma—damp, reminding me of stagnant rain water. We walked closely together, her flattening the backs of her too-small orthopedic shoes with every step. Once safely inside, I eased the worry from my face as I considered what could have happened if she had remained outside. But then the reality of the situation set in: Who could I call for help? What could I do? Where would the woman go?

Princeville is synonymous with being frequently underwater—literally and financially.

In the twenty minutes or so before Mr. Allen arrived, I mulled over these questions. The who, what, where of the situation was mounting and I was unprepared to provide anything beyond comfort for the woman. Deciding it’d be best if she came along with me and Mr. Allen, rather than remain alone in an unfamiliar room for two hours, I prepared the backseat of my car by removing a healthy amount of trash and boxes of clipboards. This was the first and only time, really, that I was in charge of another adult’s wellbeing and the thought of worsening her situation was enough to give me a panic attack.

But instead of panic, I focused my energy on the woman’s needs, providing her with water, towels, snacks, dry clothing and temporary refuge from the impending hurricane. Unsure of what to say or do next, we sat together, in silence, waiting for Mr. Allen and the storm to arrive.

The town of Princeville, North Carolina, is 31 miles from my office. Originally named Freedom Hill, Princeville has a population count of less than 2,100. But it carries the history of being the first municipality in the United States incorporated in 1885 entirely by free black people. Since major flooding was first recorded there more than a century before, Princeville has also had the distinction of being one of the most notorious locations for severe flooding in the country. Because it is situated in the underlying region of the Tar River, the entire town is uniquely vulnerable to flooding after heavy or prolonged rain.

For the most part, U.S. municipalities at high risk for flooding have a higher proportion of low-income and black residents. In Houston, Texas, for example, a history of redlining and socio-economic inequality also rendered the east side of the city, most residents of whom are of color, least safe-guarded against Hurricane Harvey. Racial and economic segregation in parts of coastal Florida and in Puerto Rico, where the death toll exceeds 400, distributed the vast amount of devastation wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria among already vulnerable populations. As explained in a memo published by Brookings in September, factors such as substandard infrastructure in low-income housing and a lack of homeowners or flood insurance place black, Latinx, and low income residents at a much greater risk for loss during natural disasters than their more affluent counterparts.

Princeville, N.C. is no exception. Its black population is estimated between 96 and 97 percent, and nearly 20 percent of Princeville’s residents live at or below the poverty line. Princeville epitomizes the abandonment, displacement, neglect, and unimpeded mental and physical violence perpetrated by the state against black people in instances of bad weather. A town that historian Richard Mizelle has called a “remarkable symbol of environmental resiliency” is synonymous with being frequently underwater—literally and financially.

This was certainly the case in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. By Friday morning, an estimated 80 percent of the town’s homes and businesses were submerged. Across North Carolina, the storm caused an estimated $1.5 billion in structural property damage, and killed at least 26 people. But to fully understand Matthew’s devastation, we need to go back in time 17 years to a previous storm whose name lives in infamy across the South.

On Sept. 16, 1999—just days after Hurricane Dennis, which covered North Carolina in 6 to 8 inches of water—Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm system with sustained winds of 110 mph, made landfall in the southeastern part of the state at Cape Fear. Between 12 and 20 inches of rain oversaturated the ground and flooded multiple rivers, including the Tar River, which borders Princeville. Fifty-two people died across the state. Many died as they tried to escape the rising waters and debris. Thousands more were injured. In Princeville alone, more than 700 homes—the vast majority of the town—were destroyed, displacing thousands. Water damage brought some of Princeville’s most beloved landmarks, such as its Town Hall, to the ground.

On Feb. 29, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13146 in response to advance “the future of Princeville, North Carolina” in the wake of Hurricane Floyd. The objective was to establish an interagency council that would develop structural and nonstructural recommendations in order to assure Princeville’s future. According to the order, these recommendations were required to respect the “unique historic and cultural importance of Princeville in American history…and, to the extent practicable, protect Princeville from future floods.”

This was quite the undertaking and a bold maneuver on the part of an administration on its way out of the White House. The commitment behind the order could not have been more explicit: Princeville was there to stay, and an assembly of the government’s best and brightest would guarantee it.

Funding for their endeavor came four months later as part of the Emergency Supplemental Act of 2000. Approximately 43 percent of this budget was set aside for a feasibility study of ways to reduce flood damage in Princeville. The assumption was that by pouring time, energy, money and effort into the town, the government could do its due diligence and possibly ameliorate another catastrophe to life and property. In July 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered into a Feasibility Cost Sharing Agreement with the state of North Carolina.

Over the course of the study, a number of alternatives were proposed, leading to a Feasibility Scoping Meeting in 2006. Nearly ten years later, in December 2015, during the Obama administration, the Army Corps of Engineers published a report. It found that nearly all of Princeville’s residents remain at high risk for “public/life safety issues” due to the high occurrence of flooding in the area and the likelihood of future floods.

The report found that “substantial threats to mental and physical health” would accrue if no action is taken by the state to address the serious environmental issues in Princeville. The report also predicted “negative impacts to community cohesion, as families and individuals are displaced by floods” and damage to “cultural and historic sites” causes residents to leave town or lose hope.

In Princeville—a community originally built upon the self-organization and determination of black people—it seemed that the damage brought by Hurricane Floyd might never be repaired. Looking back a decade after the hurricane, Fire Chief Keith Harris, who led many rescue efforts during Floyd, said: “I don’t know if [we] will ever fully recover.”

An updated version of the Army Corp of Engineers report, released in April 2016, stressed the findings included in the December report. Among its recommendations were new levees, highway rerouting, extensions to current levees, and improved evacuation plans. Despite these plans, six months later Hurricane Matthew breached the unimproved levees, drowning Princeville once more.

All told, more than 16 years of state and federal action did little to prepare Princeville, although the threat of flooding was well-known, studied, put into numerical terms and documented. With black lives at stake, was it ever conceivable that the state would hold up its end of the bargain and “to the extent practicable, protect Princeville”?

In the days following Hurricane Matthew, water levels rose over Princeville’s faulty levees, causing massive amounts of flooding. Fortunately, the residents of Princeville were evacuated prior to the storm. “I mean, I just cannot praise them more,” former Governor Pat McCrory told reporters. “We have not had a loss of life in a town that is totally underwater at this point in time.”

The evacuation is indeed a praiseworthy feat. But it is hardly evidence of the state’s commitment to “protect Princeville from future floods,” nor does it demonstrate the state’s willingness to mitigate, as much as possible, the wholesale damage that displaces residents and creates the conditions for community-wide despondency. In fact, it proves just the opposite—the successful evacuation is notable only because of the state’s wider failure to remedy black suffering and safeguard black lives.

Lives were saved in 2016, but much of the town, its history and its community was lost. Such loss is incalculable. As Atlantic writer Vann Newkirk II writes, “The most difficult exercise in a catastrophe’s aftermath is accounting for the things and people lost: the resulting health crises, the activities made difficult, the memories erased, and the strain of rebuilding.” The inaction of the state in the wake of Hurricane Floyd ensured that the intangible elements of Princeville would not be easily recovered: health, access, memories, and relationships.

This present, like the condition of African Americans more generally, cannot be separated from the long history of transcontinental slavery. “Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather,” writes Tufts University professor Christina Sharpe in her book In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. Sharpe writes that “weather” is “the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black.”

Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew, Harvey, Irma and Maria and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 are not so much arbitrary, singular, or apolitical meteorological events, but the manifestations of much deeper consequences and conditions that black people, immigrants, and the poor experience every day. So long as an anti-black society is the norm, reproducing itself unabated generation after generation, the effect of bad weather upon vulnerable populations, but especially black people, is promised to result in pain, suffering, and unspeakable loss.

Thus, state recommendations that only attend to the surface consequences of catastrophic disasters without considering the totality of the environment in which they take place will fail black people time and time again. It is no accident that the woman sitting alone in the park had no other recourse other than to endure the brute force of the hurricane all on her own. She, like millions of other black people, lives in a climate that would rather see her dead than alive. As Audre Lorde wrote in the conclusion of “A Litany for Survival,” the woman was “never meant to survive.”

If there is hope, then it might be to do as the original members of the Princeville community did: break new ground. Community leaders have proposed a 52-acre expansion of Princeville, building essential services like schools and a town hall to less vulnerable land. The governor’s office says they’re “excited to work with the town on the project.” The timetable, budget, and funding source has yet to be determined.

Ishmael Bishop writes about the climate, data and blackness. His work has appeared in Scalawag and Mask Magazine.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Scalawag, a print and online magazine dedicated to reckoning with the American South by amplifying the voices of people who live, love, and struggle in the region. This collaboration is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.

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