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At the close of the Civil War, Union troops occupied the Tarboro area. During those weeks many of the former slaves in Edgecombe and surrounding counties left their plantations and came to the Federals’ encampment seeking freedom and protection. The future faced by the mostly illiterate, unskilled, penniless freedmen was uncertain and bleak.
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They congregated around the Union troops bivouacked on the south side of the Tar River below Tarboro. Although it was the soldiers’ policy to advise the emancipated slaves to return to the plantations and work for their old masters, a sizable number of the freedmen remained encamped at the site after the troops had departed. They called their new village Freedom Hill (sometimes known as Liberty Hill). They adopted the name from a nearby hill or knoll from which Northern soldiers had addressed the former slaves—telling them that the Union victory in the war had made them free men and women. The knoll where the soldiers made their speeches was on the west side of Old Sparta Road near what is now the area’s major traffic intersection. The circumstances regarding the assembly and name were later recalled by Dr. J. M. Baker who lived in Tarboro at the end of the war and often visited Freedom Hill.
The freedmen who remained encamped on the river soon erected crude shanties. White landowners made no effort to evict them from the land, it being so swampy as to be otherwise useless. In fact there is some evidence that the “squatters” were encouraged to remain at the site and thus keep their distance from the white community in Tarboro. In the 1870s the land did change hands and blacks began acquiring lots. One of the buyers was Turner Prince (1843-1912), a carpenter for whom the community was renamed upon its incorporation.
The town’s economy improved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a proliferation of black-owned businesses. The rise of white supremacy brought a serious threat to Princeville’s continued existence as a black town. Calls mounted for its dissolution, but the residents resisted. Today Princeville remains a cohesive black community with a heritage unique among North Carolina towns. Princeville has experienced repeated flooding, most notably by Hurricane Floyd in September 1999. Recovery efforts brought national attention to the town.
Joe A. Mobley, “In the Shadow of White Society: Princeville, a Black Town in North Carolina, 1865-1915,” North Carolina Historical Review 63 (July 1986): 340-384
(Tarboro) Daily Southerner, Bicentennial Edition, October 29, 1960— reprint of interview with Dr. J. M. Baker