Sitting in the temporary town hall offices of Princeville, North Carolina, a small town located less than an hour from my home, I am tasked with conducting an oral history interview, focused on the catastrophic flooding caused by hurricanes Floyd (1999) and Matthew (2016). For many who have heard of Princeville, it was the national attention brought on by the flooding in 1999 which introduced them to the rural, river-side town.
As I am being told these personal accounts of homes and belongings being swept away in the rising floodwaters, their words are somehow still laced with hope and resilience, a keyword for social scientists like myself. My focus is on resiliency in Princeville, and what the locals believe would lead to a stronger, more storm-ready town. All the while, I am being introduced for the first time, to a larger, deep-rooted story of history and pride.
What many do not know, including North Carolina life-long residents like myself, is that Princeville is the oldest town chartered by freed Blacks in America. In 1885, this historic place which was once called Freedom Hill was renamed after Turner Prince, a carpenter who built most of the original town. This town was built on land that locals say no one else wanted, but they made it their own.
This is a lesson in history that I, and many others, were never taught. The people of Princeville do not shy away from this injustice and lack of representation; instead, they embrace the need for change and encourage its importance.
As an outsider looking in, one of the most obvious questions I have is how these people stay in an area that has flooded and will flood again? Why do they put themselves and their property in such danger just to stay in the town they grew up in? Why not embrace one of the town resilience options of moving to a nearby 53 acres which is less likely to flood? Why stay in a place where they have experienced loss and trauma due to “storms of the century?”
Growing up in coastal North Carolina myself, I assumed that I would have the insight needed to understand, to fully comprehend and be able to reason with their answers. How naïve of me. In the quest to understand how they stay or the ways that they think the town should build itself back with more resilience, I have completely looked past the why, which is by far the most important part.
As many of our respondents explain, their ties to Princeville are not recent, they are ancestral. The brave Black men and women who came together to form a town of their own, a place of their own. Those before them who took the land that no one wanted, and endured storms, flooding, and challenges that I will never really understand. How could anyone who has such a tie to those grounds simply leave?
It was then that the realization hit: sometimes researchers are so focused on the questions they are hoping to answer, they miss the most important information. As an ethnographer using oral life histories, there is a unique opportunity to collect qualitative data directly from those who were and continue to be most impacted by the floods. Giving those who have never been given a platform an opportunity with which they can use their own words and phrases to tell the story of not just what resilience might be in Princeville, but the real reason why.
If there’s one thing that I have learned while working on this project, it is that it is my responsibility as someone with the privilege of having a platform for my voice to help those who do not. Helping tell stories like these – stories that many have never heard – is an important contribution an ethnographer can and must make to people and communities. We must use the platforms of our research to not just answer our questions, but to share with it the voice of those whose stories have never been told.