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Story Publication logo June 12, 2023

Homecoming: Race, Place and Living With the Tar River, Part I

Kendrick Ransome and Marquetta Dickens in 2019 in the Tar River at Shiloh Landing

Origins is a three-part photography and reporting project that explores how climate change is...


Image by Justin Cook. United States.

This series is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative presented in partnership with NC Newsline, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.

When Hurricane Matthew flooded her hometown of Princeville, North Carolina, Marquetta Dickens was 400 miles away, coaching basketball in New Jersey. She nervously watched the storm approach and wanted to return home, but her family, who lived in a floodplain, told her to stay put. 

As soon as the Tar River retreated, she flew home to help with recovery. There, working in a food and clothing distribution line for flood victims in a historic plantation house, she resolved to move back to Princeville and work with others to preserve the historic Black town before another storm washed it away.

Marquetta was 13 years old when flooding from Hurricane Floyd destroyed Princeville in 1999. She remembers the unearthed caskets that floated down the street, and the Xs that rescue workers spray-painted on the houses after evacuating occupants. She knows flooding survivors in Princeville who still experience symptoms of PTSD every time it rains.

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Kendrick Ransome and Marquetta Dickens in 2019 in the Tar River at Shiloh Landing, where enslaved Africans were brought ashore to be sold to plantations in Edgecombe County. Dickens and Ransome co-founded Freedom Org, Ransome runs Golden Organic Farm in nearby Pinetops, N.C., and has family connections to Princeville. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

Marquetta never fully recovered from Floyd.

During Hurricane Matthew, she was already anxious from enduring Hurricane Sandy while in graduate school a few years prior. But “Matthew was my awakening,” Marquetta said. 

The storms are in her. That’s how trauma works. But so are her ancestors, who endured their own floods. She comes from a line of strong-minded, determined women. 

Like her grandmother, Delia Perkins, who was mayor of Princeville when FEMA offered all the townspeople to buy out their property. The Town Board of Commissioners rejected the buyout. Delia cast the tie-breaking vote.

Like Marquetta’s maternal great grandmother, Maggie Lee Perkins, the oldest ancestor she can trace to Princeville, who spoke to her through a medium. She feels Maggie’s presence in her family. “Keep going. You got this, you can do it,” her spirit says.  

Still reeling nearly seven years after Hurricane Matthew inundated the town in 2016, Princeville has an ambitious recovery plan that supports residents who wish to remain in the flood zone, allows them to migrate to higher ground within the town, or to leave Princeville entirely. To outsiders, the plan could feel paradoxical: How can a town survive if residents leave? Can the town relocate and still be Princeville? 

In another sense, the plan is an act of Black self-determination, which was always the point of Princeville. In a climate-changed future, can the town strengthen its roots while becoming something new?

If successful, experts say Princeville’s model for climate resilience could be applied elsewhere. But many locals fear the levee built by the US Army Corps of Engineers won’t protect them. And for good reason. The levee improvements the Corps has promised since Hurricane Floyd have been delayed for 23 years.

Marquetta co-founded a nonprofit to work alongside the town so that resources come from within the community, from leaders who locals know and trust. That could make Princeville more self-sufficient like her ancestors envisioned. She wants Princeville “to be the base, to be the blueprint,” for the rest of the Coastal Plain, she says.

Marquetta dreams of a future where young people want to stay in Princeville. In her dreams it’s a hub for innovation and food, an artists’ community. She sees business moving to the town, and its historical sites protected and a tourist destination. Despite flood risks, Princeville is full of “people who live here, who thrive here, who love it,” Marquetta says. The people who want to take the risks are Black like her. Like her ancestors.

The mural at Riverfront Park in Princeville, North Carolina, depicting formerly enslaved Black people fleeing Tarboro to Freedom Hill. The mural has been submerged during floods. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

Shadow Town

Children picking cotton in an Edgecombe County field near Princeville, circa 1923. Image courtesy of the Edgecombe County Memorial Library. United States.

The labor of enslaved Black people built Edgecombe County. From the 1700s until the 1860s, white settlers brought enslaved Africans up the Tar River to a sharp bend at Shiloh Landing northeast of town. There they were forced into labor, deforesting the land for lumber, turpentine and farmland and tending to vast cotton plantations renowned for their yields.

Edgecombe’s cotton boom in the 1850s transformed Tarboro into an agricultural hub and a central point for import and export on the Tar River. Across the South, deforestation and massive cotton plantations depleted the soil and released carbon stored deep in the ground into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. From 1850 to 1970 alone, agriculture released twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning fossil fuels, wrote Judith D. Schwartz in her book, Cows Save the Planet.

Wealthy nations are responsible for more than half of modern carbon emissions, but climate change began on the plantation. 

Cotton picked by enslaved Africans led to the invention of coal-powered machines that birthed industrial revolutions, empires powered by fossil fuels, and, ultimately, a world where the descendants of the enslaved, like those in Princeville, are among the most disproportionately harmed by climate change. 

The Civil War shattered the southern forced labor economy, and freed 4 million enslaved people. But white Edgecombe landowners kept the good land for themselves. The freed Black people fled to Union lines on a tract of swampy land deemed worthless by its owners on the south bank of the Tar River in the flood plain.

2006 study shows that in former Confederate states across the Southeast, particularly in small cities and towns located near Piedmont fall lines and within the old cotton belt, like Princeville, Black people were disproportionately relegated to these low-lying flood lands. 

Low wages, discriminatory housing and labor markets, and “naked oppression” forced Southern Black communities founded after the Civil War to “the least desirable areas, many of which were swampy, mosquito infested, prone to smoke from fires, and frequented by floods.” Whites escaped flooding by settling on higher, more valuable ground, the study’s authors wrote.

The plantation’s white descendants later sold acreage to emancipated Blacks, and there, as the town website commemorates, they “laid the foundation for an experiment in black self-determination: Freedom Hill.” 

In 1885 Princeville became the first incorporated Black town in America, named after Turner Prince, a community leader and carpenter who helped build many of the town’s buildings. 

Danielle Purifoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and expert on Black geographies, calls Princeville a “shadow town”—a Black town on the outskirts of a town governed by white people. 

The white town is “reliant on, and developed by the transfer of resources from the very communities of color from which it distances itself,” according to Purifoy. This design recreates “historic plantation power relations between Blacks and the white planter class,” which undermines the Black town’s municipal independence, leaving it constantly on the verge of failure.  

“White placemaking corresponds to the unmaking of black places,” she wrote in her thesis at Duke University. This “unmaking” in Princeville makes the town more vulnerable to flooding disasters and climate change.   

Yet Princeville persisted. Despite Black codes and Jim Crow and vigilante violence. Despite being disenfranchised from state and federal elections by Redeemers. Despite attempts by white supremacists in Tarboro to revoke Princeville’s charter, annex the town and do what flooding has failed to do: erase Princeville from the map. 

Tar River flooding in Princeville circa 1919. Image courtesy of the Edgecombe County Memorial Library. United States.

The Floods

Children ham for a photo in Princeville circa the 1970s. Image courtesy of the Edgecombe County Memorial Library archive. United States.

The Tar trickles from the ground as a spring in Person County, and snakes nearly 200 miles across eastern North Carolina, unites with the Pamlico River outside of Washington, North Carolina, and empties into the Pamlico Sound. 

This Tar-Pamlico River Basin is a collection of rivulets, gullies and streams that help that surface water runoff find its way to the sea. Like an artery, the Tar and its major tributaries Swift, Deep and Fishing Creeks nourish the fertile farmland of Edgecombe County, sustaining agriculture and life. But this rivershed also creates broad floodplains that imperil anyone living within them.

Because the Tar River Basin creeps across the gently sloped coastal plain, its primary floodplains are vast, swampy wetlands known by the Eastern Algonquin word Pocosin, or “swamp on a hill,” according to geologist Stanley Riggs, a retired East Carolina University coastal geology professor who spent his career studying the dynamics of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain and barrier islands. These pocosins act like sponges that hold normal rainfall for gradual release into its creeks and streams. 

Over the 20th century, thousands of miles of ditches were dug to drain these swamps into nearby tributaries, which were channelized–widened and deepened–to carry more runoff more quickly so the land could be farmed. This destruction prevents the floodplains from absorbing and releasing water at a natural pace.

“Resilience is like doggy paddling,” Marquetta says. “It's damn tiring. But if you don't, you're going to sink and drown."

Princeville is only a few miles south of the Tar River’s confluence with its largest tributary, Fishing Creek, which drains vast acres of pocosin via these ditches and channelized tributaries into the Tar as it flows past Princeville, according to Riggs.

The eastern North Carolina countryside is also crisscrossed by elevated road berms that act as dams. Most of these road berms are pierced by tiny drainage culverts that allow water to drain through them, but during flash floods, water can pool like a lake behind these roads. 

Secondary floodplains farther from the Tar River are less obvious, but are crucial to holding and draining water during more intense storms. Here people often build their homes, or develop the land for industrial farming. And here arises the conflict with water and the natural processes of the land. 

The underlying culverts can’t handle all that water, which overtops the road, erodes the berm and eventually blows it out, Riggs writes. Urbanization upstream from Princeville created more concrete and asphalt-hardened surfaces that don’t absorb water, increasing runoff into the river shed and flooding downstream. There is nothing natural about the disasters that Hurricane Floyd or Matthew unleashed.

Destructive flooding, like the kind that repeatedly drowns Princeville, happens when land is engineered for short-term gain without regard for the natural processes that shape and sustain it, and when those with less power and fewer resources are forced to the social and topographical margins. 

This is why Marquetta says she doesn’t like the term “natural disaster,” and thinks “resilience” is a cliché. To her, politics and planning policies decide which communities are flooded and which aren’t. She’s tired of Black people being asked to be resilient in the face of natural disasters that are driven by human decisions.

“Why do [Black] people have to continuously be resilient? Why is it praised to simply live? To be resistant in order to live? To me, resilient means to be resistant in order to live, literally... That's no badge of honor.”

“Resilience is like doggy paddling,” Marquetta says. “It's damn tiring. But if you don't, you're going to sink and drown.

“It reminds me of the trauma, of all the things we had to overcome. It's a reminder that we are so far from where we should be and where we need to be.”

Heavy rains in November in 2020 caused the Tar River to flood and nearly spill into Princeville. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

In 2022, the water line from the highest extent of flooding is still visible on the wall in the mold-covered bedroom of a Princeville home that was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Image by Justin Cook. United States.


Another threat to Princeville is the deliberate erasure of its story. History of Edgecombe County, published in 1920 by Joseph Turner and John Bridgers, deliberately erased the contributions of Black towns so central to the American story. Following the Civil War, the Dunning School of Reconstruction at Columbia University painted whites in the Reconstruction South as victims of corrupt white Republican leadership allied with incompetent Black politicians, and promoted the racist belief in “Black incapacity” to lead or to care for themselves. This disinformation campaign romanticized the Confederacy as a "Lost Cause," and sanitized the brutality of slavery in textbooks, which shaped the Reconstruction story as taught to a generation of students. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

When Marquetta was growing up, she didn’t learn about Princeville’s historical significance in school. Not until college did she realize how much the town’s history drove her grandmother Delia’s decision to reject the buyout. As Marquetta learned more about Princeville’s story, her love for her hometown grew, and she founded Fighters for Freedom Hill, a nonprofit to advocate for Princeville’s needs. 

But she realized that towns across the Upper Coastal Plain faced the same issues. 

“A lot of those people look like my family: they’re Black and, or low income. There’s high poverty in those areas, with low opportunities because those areas have [faced intentional disinvestment],” she said. 

That disinvestment breeds distrust between communities like Princeville and local, state and federal governments. She expanded the nonprofit’s mission to historical preservation, economic development, education, community engagement, and agriculture in under-resourced communities across the Coastal Plain. Her community development corporation, Freedom Organization, was born. 

Marquetta played basketball for NC State University under the legendary coach Kay Yow. She graduated in 2007, and played professionally in Europe. She coached at Monmouth University in New Jersey where she got her master’s in education, and later became certified as a counselor. 

For years she worked to build Freedom Org from afar. She yearned for a way to get closer to home. A coaching job opened at William Peace University in Raleigh in 2019 and she took it. But Raleigh isn’t home, either. 

When Marquetta came back to North Carolina, she wanted to live closer to her grandmother, Delia, and to tap into her wisdom in running the nonprofit. So she bought and is renovating a house next door to Delia — in the floodplain. She left her coaching job in March 2023 after receiving grant funding to run Freedom Org full time.

“I wanna do whatever it takes to honor the people here who have put in literally their blood, sweat and tears to build Princeville and other communities into what it is today,” she says.

She’s starting with Black communities because, like on a depressurizing plane she says, “you have to put on your own oxygen mask first” before you can help everyone else. She plans to work with leaders in migrant and indigenous communities plagued by flooding and displacement, as well as white communities that have suffered similar disinvestment. She sees agriculture as a potential point of connection, healing and solidarity.

Marquetta is worried about climate change and its impacts on Princeville and the entire Coastal Plain. Although Freedom Org is not a climate organization, its mission is essential for adapting to a warming world: Building community and Black autonomy; creating self-sufficiency through healthy food, land preservation and political activism. 

She and Kendrick Ransome, her cousin and co-founder, organize cemetery cleanups, a massive homecoming celebration to draw tourism to Princeville, a business incubator, and run an organic farm that will supply vegetables to a local food hub they have in the works.

Freedom Org is also working on a land trust to purchase parcels and to partner with Edgecombe Community College’s Construction Academy to build affordable housing resistant to flooding and climate change. 

They also want to have Wilson Cemetery designated as a historic site, like Freedom Hill and the old town museum. Andy Fox, director of N.C. State University’s Coastal Design Lab, which has done extensive preservation work in Princeville, says designating a third historic site would allow the town a historic place designation, opening it up to preservation grants.

Marquetta wants to see more business development within the floodplain, which will be more accessible to the elderly people who will continue to live there in elevated flood-resistant housing. 

But businesses will only be viable if they are properly protected by the levee.

“Relying solely on the USACE to repair the levee is crazy to me. Especially seeing the results that we have not gotten,” Marquetta says. She thinks a university or private company could come up with a better design, and wants to see the town officials be more creative. 

She also worries that development, if not done carefully and by the right people, can gentrify neighborhoods and drive out long-time residents. 

At auction Marquetta bought a fire-damaged building on Main Street in nearby Tarboro in reach of residents who live in Princeville’s floodplain. She plans to renovate it into a sports bar with a hub for fresh, locally sourced healthy food from around Edgecombe County and the Coastal Plain. That includes a community garden Freedom Org had approved for east Tarboro on flood plain land bought out by FEMA. 

Delia wants to see young people with ideas take root here. People like Marquetta, who in some ways she sees as carrying on her legacy.

“This is the kind of person that you need to get involved with, not because she's my granddaughter, but because she has a passion for doing things,” she told town officials. Someone who “don't mind going out and shaking the bushes to see what's out there.”

In 2022, Marquetta removed a Donald Trump campaign sign from the window of the building she bought in downtown Tarboro. She says that sports unifies people in Edgecombe County, so she plans to turn it into a sports bar with a food hub. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

In 2020, locals and supporters posed for a portrait with a grave they uncovered during cemetery cleanup held by Freedom Org. The historic cemetery was inundated by flood waters during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The plot is owned by family members, many of whom have moved away, and has been neglected for years. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

Marquetta spends time with her grandmother, Delia Perkins, at Delia's home in Princeville in 2023. “[This] will always be the oldest town incorporated by Blacks in the United States of America. Even if, eventually, everybody has to move, it will always be that sacred ground. I don't care where you move to, if you move to the fifty-three acres, it's not Princeville. It's the extra territory around Princeville," Delia said. Image by Justin Cook. United States.

Now We Live on Water

Black people and towns have always had to be inventive, Purifoy says. She draws comparison between towns like Princeville and autonomous Black maroon communities that formed before slavery was abolished. Maroons lived independently from white rule, and experimented with different societies and ways of living with the land. They had no government support and were viewed as a threat to plantation society. 

Black towns are a continuation of maroon struggles and experimentation, she argues. Through constant interference, disruption, denial of reparations, and lack of support that white towns have, these Black towns were forced to experiment with the tools, land and scraps they had in order to exist on their own, according to Purifoy.

Since the legacy of slavery persists in climate change as a “continuing and ongoing harm,” Purifoy says climate reparations to Black towns won’t offset past harms — unless there are significant changes to the systems that birthed these apartheid towns and the climate crisis to begin with.

“The past is right now,” she says.

So the maroon experiments live on in Princeville and in Freedom Org, says Purifoy, who believes it will be up to residents in communities most affected by climate change “to figure it out or perish. Or leave.” She is adamant that even if the experiments may not look like much to outsiders right now, they will be crucial for adapting to climate change. 

“It’s not the first time people have asked ‘How will we live here?’” she says. “‘Now we live on water. Now what?’”

A massive cypress tree with deep roots in the Tar River at Shiloh Landing, near Princeville, N.C. where the first enslaved Africans were brought ashore and sold into bondage in Tarboro. Image by Justin Cook. United States.


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