It was 1865, the American Civil War was coming to a close. The South was changing rapidly and the confederate chokehold on the region was coming to an end. Former slaves from Edgecombe County in North Carolina fled slave plantations for Union Army encampments. They were seeking protection from the Confederates and freedom from slavery. Not long after their arrival, Union soldiers left for the north, leaving the land to the now-freed slaves of Edgecombe County. They began to slowly build the community of Freedom Hill, incorporating the town in 1885 and naming it Princeville, the first Black town in the United States.
Edgecombe County was an important area for slavery in the South. In 1860 almost sixty percent of the county’s population were slaves. The area was rich with tobacco farms and white plantation owners relied on the slaves in Edgecombe to cultivate and labor in their fields. More than 10,000 slaves lived in the county and almost all of them tended to the tobacco fields. But once the civil war ended former slaves weren’t obligated to work the farms and had control over their labor. This gave the former slaves power that they didn’t previously possess. Whites were furious that free Blacks were living among them, but the separate Black community of Freedom Hill supplied the surrounding white area with laborers and sharecroppers to tend the farms, as well as servants to tend the homes of former slave owners. The town was also home to carpenters, Blacksmiths, grocers, seamstresses brick masons. Although wealth was short, Freedom Hill became self-sufficient and was renamed Princeville in honor of ex-slave Turner Prince, a carpenter who had lived in the town since its founding.
At the turn of the 20th century, white supremacy threatened Black communities all over the South. But in Princeville, Black residents were the majority and were eager to participate in the political process. Princeville and other Edgecombe County voters sent eleven Black men to the state legislature from 1877 to 1890. They served a total of fifteen terms in office. They also sent two Black representatives to Congress, James E. O’Hara of New Bern, from 1883 to 1887; and Henry Plummer Cheatham of Vance County, from 1889 to 1893.
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