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A flood of faith, a town reborn

By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001

PRINCEVILLE, N.C. -- You can feel it here along the banks of the Tar River.

Something special. Something spiritual.

It takes a while to find a name for it, but you feel it right away.

It is more than the sunlight tickling the tops of trees and taking the chill out of the morning air on its way to play in the dew frozen to stiff blades of grass. It is more than the dark, slow-moving water of the Tar, fussing gently only when it has to skitter around a stump or branch that has fallen into its path.

You can feel it here even though the muted morning sounds of the river are victimized by the angry bark of a dog somewhere on the other side. But there is no threat. You're on Freedom Hill, and the river stands between you and any hard feelings the dog, or anyone else, might have.

You feel it even though the crooked, outstretched arm of an idle, bright yellow Delco front loader makes a rude play for your attention.

Nature's conspiracy makes you forget for a moment that the big news in Princeville this weekend is the reopening of a church. But as beautiful and moving as all those things are, they merely say that it is an early February morning on the banks of the Tar River, that another new day has arrived in Princeville.

But it feels like a lot more.

It feels like that first morning in Princeville must have felt.

* * *

That first morning was in 1865, when black Americans, long silenced by whips, chains and servitude, finally got to be something other than somebody's property. The South's defeat in the Civil War had made Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation more than just another piece of paper loaded with high-minded words that American statesmen had become practiced at composing but unaccomplished in adhering to.

Princeville is history. Not just black history, or North Carolina history, but American history.

A group of the newly freed Americans settled on soggy swamp across the river from Tarboro, on land they could have because it was of no value to the folks who lived in the stately mansions that still line Tarboro's Main Street. The new settlers went about the business of forming a town: Shops went up, a school, a church. Elections were held, with residents casting their first votes, and a town government was birthed.

The settlement became the first town in the nation established by blacks. They called it Freedom Hill.

Twenty years later, it was incorporated as Princeville in honor of a local carpenter, Turner Prince. Townspeople rejected the recommendation by white folks across the river that it be named after assassinated President James Garfield.

Freedom and self-governance came at a price, however, and citizens of Princeville paid their first installment two years after incorporation.

The waters of the Tar rose above its banks and flooded the new town in 1887. Residents waited for the waters to recede, bailed and wrung out what wouldn't leave on its own, and started rebuilding and washing the mud out of their lives.

They made payments again when the river overflowed in 1919, in 1925, in 1940 and in 1958. Each time, they waited for the waters to leave and then went back to what was left of home, to wash off what the river left, to rebuild what it took away.

A dike erected in 1967 provided security and 31 years of growth. By 1990, the original 25 families had become a community of 2,100.

Then, in September 1999, Hurricane Floyd visited eastern Carolina and liked it. Hurricane Dennis had been there two weeks earlier, and the waters deposited by the two were too much for the Tar River, even wearing its new earthen collar, and devastating for the town of Princeville.

The town, an hour's drive east of Raleigh, was underwater for weeks, with the dike that had made it feel so secure now keeping the water from leaving on its own. This flood was the worst. Many residents had to be plucked from rooftops as the water covered the town.

The town's oldest church, Mount Zion Primitive Baptist, built in 1871, was ravaged and stands now as a decaying, empty shell. A few blocks away, St. Luke Church of Christ, 75 years old but rebuilt in 1994, was also wiped out.

Bobby Hopkins isn't from Princeville and hopes he can leave there soon, but you would never know that from the way he talks about the place.

"Being from eastern Carolina, I know about Princeville with a little bit of pride. My wife, from Virginia, knew about it from school. My grandmother knew about it from way back."

Hopkins is in Princeville on an 18-month assignment to help the town get back on its feet. He is on loan from Jacksonville, N.C., where he is assistant city manager. His title here is recovery project manager.

"You ask yourself: Why do they want to rebuild here by this river? Being here, you know why. Because it's theirs," Hopkins said.

It has been theirs for 136 years.

In the morning, standing by the river and staring across it, you can feel what Princeville residents must have felt all those years as they looked to where the mansions are and George Washington slept, and cared not a whit about what the people over there thought.

Mornings along this river still feel like freedom.

* * *

This is a special morning, even in a place where they all are. This is the day that St. Luke Church of Christ, after more than 16 months of its congregation meeting in makeshift and borrowed churches, will reopen.

Malcolm Garris is already there at 7 a.m., pacing the parking lot, even though the ribbon-cutting is scheduled for 1 p.m. The marquee welcoming visitors to the dedication says, "God did it."

Garris has driven 45 minutes to get here.

"Do you have a key?" he asks another out-of-towner here for the church's reopening. "I'm here to help with last-minute preparations." He was also here months ago to help residents clean out homes and salvage what they could.

"It looks a lot better than it did then," he says, noting with amazement that even today he saw standing water as he drove into town. "A lot of the houses still have X's on them," he continues haltingly, as if he doesn't really want to, ". . . that we didn't find any bodies inside."

Soon the Rev. James Brown, pastor of St. Luke, arrives. Garris grabs his ladder and follows Brown into the church to get to work.

Brown, in his deep but soft voice, begins an impromptu tour of the new church. He brags that through all the adversity, his congregation lost no strength. "We got stronger," he says. "We were 350 members; now we're 375. We also got stronger spiritually." Brown grew up in Princeville. He became a member of St. Luke in 1977 and its pastor in 1998, taking over from a preacher who had been pastor for 33 years.

The sanctuary now seats 475, up from 400, he says, pausing to point out that the carpet was donated by Standard Tile and the bricks by Namaco, two area businesses.

He passes by several classrooms the old church didn't have. They are for GED classes and the program the church runs for first-time juvenile offenders, he says.

"This church is the center of the community. That's why I've stayed. This church is doing a lot for the people," he says, noting the food bank and programs for the mentally ill.

In the back of the church, there is a large room with a big-screen TV and seating for 400 that Brown says allows overflow crowds to watch services going on up front.

By 1 p.m., the parking lot is a writhing sea of maroon sweatshirts. The fronts bear a likeness of the church, and "God did it" is emblazoned across the backs. The pastor and a few other church officials wear white sweatshirts of the same design.

Lee Reynolds, who lives in Raleigh but grew up in Newburgh, is also wearing one.

He is a quiet man, but his pride slips out anyway. He was the architect and contractor who put St. Luke back together again, "from scratch."

"I wanted to raise the standard," Reynolds says. "I followed two goals in my design. I wanted to preserve something of the church's character and change some of the focus to incorporate and enhance the community into the church ministry. I wanted to make other parts user-friendly," he says, which is why he allowed space for basketball goals and table tennis.

He brags in his quiet way about being 90 days ahead of the construction schedule but demurs when asked about the cost. "I hate to talk about that," Reynolds says, before confessing that he donated more than $40,000 in services and discounts.

"My greatest reward is being a part of something to bring this community together."

As the time to cut the ribbon approaches, several women in wheelchairs sit in front of the church door. They will cut the ribbon, Brown explains, and a youth group will lead a tour. Brown likes the juxtaposed roles for the elders and the youths of the church.

At 1 p.m., the combined choir begins to sing.

"We have come this far by faith . . ."

* * *

The church, with its maroon pews and maroon carpet, is soon full of sound and of people in maroon sweatshirts swaying to it.

"We knew each other in so many ways," says Elder Larry Flowers, from mostly white Tarboro Church of Christ, which shared its Sundays with St. Luke's congregation. Flowers, who deals with the public as a county employee, seemed to relish the new level of acquaintance between him and the residents of Princeville.

Ed Nelson, president of Namaco, presents Brown with a check. "This will pay for all the bricks of the church," he says. He says he was so moved during a St. Luke service he attended that he pledged his company would help the church in every way it could, "in some ways the reverend knows about and some ways he doesn't know yet."

The dedication service is a testimonial to the national effort that went into rebuilding one church in a small town on the wrong side of the river. Contributions and support came to St. Luke from across the nation.

Lois Murray, Church of Christ finance minister, is here from Indianapolis. "This is where I learned the meaning of faith," she says.

Carmen Griffith is here to represent her church in St. Helena, S.C., near Hilton Head Island. "We sort of adopted this church, and we thought it a good act of friendship to be here," she said.

Brown tells the congregation that he was confused after the devastation of the flood.

"I asked the Lord, "Lord, what are you going to do?' We see what he did. Now, I'm standing here talking to all kinds of folks -- black folks, white folks, Hispanics." He pauses to let the significance sink in. It does slowly, then the applause becomes a standing ovation as he waits.

"Don't know what God has for me next, after doing this," he says, his deep voice losing its softness and bouncing off the new, improved walls of the church for the first time, "but, whatever it is, God, bring it on. I can handle it."

"I want to thank the Lord for sending the floodwaters. I want to thank the Lord for allowing the floodwaters. I've seen folks go from old houses with mortgages to new houses without mortgages," he says. "God did it."

Mayor Delia Perkins, who met some dissension when she refused to allow the federal government to buy out the town so it wouldn't have to bail it out in the future, said the church played a part in her decision.

"Somebody said something to me about higher ground. I didn't know where higher ground was. Then I'd look at the steeple of St. Luke on the TV above the water and I said, "We're not going anyplace.' "

* * *

Bobby Hopkins, the recovery manager, talks fast as he details the progress Princeville has made: Sixty percent of the households are back home. Work is well under way to build 100 homes and repair 75 using a $9-million state grant. Funding has been approved and plans drawn to clean and repair the stormwater and sewage drainage systems, repair and build new roads and sidewalks, build a new city hall and restore the old city hall as an African-American "Firsts" Museum.

The population is expected to increase by 225 homes, he said, as a new industrial park is opened. Homes that were once 640 square feet and in disrepair are now 1,100 square feet and new, Hopkins says. He uses 11 pages to detail the town's progress, and more than one man's share of oxygen to tell about it.

No, he says, when he finishes, he will not be one of Princeville's new residents. He will return to his old job in Jacksonville.

* * *

Sunday morning, a mist is falling on the banks of the Tar River. It is not wet enough to keep away a flock of blackbirds scavenging breakfast, nor to keep away the intruder whose footsteps startle them into a short, synchronized flight. They circle back to nearly the same spot and continue their roaming meal.

The flight is practiced and precise.

As if they've done this many times before.

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