In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought what they call the Great Flood to this poor town along the banks of the Tar River. Princeville, the nation's first...

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PRINCEVILLE, N.C. — In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought what they call the Great Flood to this poor town along the banks of the Tar River. Princeville, the nation’s first town chartered by blacks, was under water for 10 days. Even the ancestors, it seemed, were bailing out — 161 caskets dislodged from their final resting place were floating in eerie eddies.

As the water receded, though, it became plain that even as the flood had nearly wiped Princeville off the map, it also had served to put it back on the map.

Jesse Jackson prayed over Princeville. Al Sharpton likened it to Valley Forge. The artist formerly known as Prince donated $37,000 to the town formerly known as Freedom Hill.

Thousands of volunteers, mostly white and from as far away as Alaska, streamed into town to help it rebuild. And on the last day of February — Black History Month 2000 — President Clinton cited Princeville’s “unique place in American history” and issued an executive order creating the President’s Council on the Future of Princeville, North Carolina.

Five years later, during this Black History Month, Princeville is celebrating its 120th birthday. According to a recent special census, the town’s population is back to 2,029, about what it was before the flood.

Black history has many heroes, and the people who reclaimed Princeville are among the unsung. But black history also is its own hero here. Were it not for Princeville’s rich black history, the town itself might be history, and not many beyond the boundaries of this hard-luck place would care. And, were it not for the flood, Princeville truly would not know itself.

“I didn’t know Princeville was that rich in history until the flood came,” said Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates, who has a ministry with her husband. “It was a hidden community waiting to be revealed. It took a disaster to bring out the miracle.”

Indeed, said Sam Knight, the town manager, whatever pride he felt about Princeville’s history growing up was overwhelmed by a more powerful sense of place. “At the time, there was the feeling of the misfortune of being born here,” said Knight, who was gone from Princeville 33 years before returning in 1995.

In fact, while the story line of a determined people reclaiming their proud heritage seems obvious, it was a close call. The town was offered a federal buyout — they would be paid for their property and Princeville would be no more — and many were tempted.

“At first I wanted to take the buyout,” said Isabelle Baker, an insurance agent and town commissioner. “At the time, people weren’t thinking of no heritage. If it floods again, heritage is not going to mean a thing if we wash away.”

But, by a 3-2 vote, the town Board of Commissioners, led by then-Mayor Delia Perkins, voted to reject the buyout.

“I’ve always known the history of Princeville, but it wasn’t something a lot of people talked about; it was just home,” Perkins said. “It was just home.”

At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves collected in these swampy lowlands under the protection of Union troops, creating a community they called Freedom Hill. On Feb. 20, 1885, it was incorporated as Princeville, named for Turner Prince, an ex-slave and early citizen.

“It’s something sacred to us,” said Dennis Waller, who grew up in Princeville and works fixing appliances and helping his brother with his print shop across the river in Tarboro. “We knew the land was no good, but it was good to us, just to have our own place.”

Since the town’s founding, floods have been a fact of life, but nothing like the events of 1999.

Suddenly, it seemed, the people of Princeville were living a Bible story. “Overnight we were Job,” Mayor Everette-Oates said.

Remarkably, nobody died. “It was the Lord,” Everette-Oates said.

Ernest Williams, proprietor of T&T Groceries, says the new Princeville is an improvement. “It looks better,” he said. “A lot of places needed fixing up.”

Yet Princeville, which had 21 businesses before the flood, has 13 now, all mom-and-pop operations, such as T&T with its sparsely eclectic inventory of Thunderbird wine, White Owl cigars, Hershey bars and vintage videotapes.

Princeville never has had a bank or a post office, a supermarket or a waffle house, Baker said.

“We need to entice business, but there’s nothing here to attract businesses; it’s been a low swampland for centuries,” said Milton Bullock, who returned home to tend to family property after the flood.

Ultimately, what sets Princeville apart is its sense of community, kinship and home.

Somewhere, said Knight, wandering the cemetery behind his father’s house, lies the undiscovered grave of Turner Prince.

The ground gives a bit, a squishy reminder of Princeville’s tenuous existence. The Knights are all buried in the area — Sam’s grandparents, mother, uncles and cousins. So too are some Cofields, Graveses, Ruffins, Farmers and Dickenses, all family to him.

“One thing about this area,” the town manager said, “everybody’s almost kin to one another, one way or the other.”