Climate Change and Solutions in Princeville, North Carolina, America’s Oldest Incorporated Black Town

by Justin Cook

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

Close your eyes. Fold time over flat so the present and the deep past overlap, and imagine. Some 3 million years ago, whales swam in a moonlit sea over what are now cotton fields and farmland in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, 100 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean today. 

This was the Pliocene Epoch, a warmer world when sea levels were much higher, so the ocean, old and deep, covered what is now eastern North Carolina.

The whales swam over the Victorian mansions and plantation homes in the county seat of Tarboro. Over the old white clapboard church flooded by hurricanes in Princeville. And over Freedom Hill, the sacred site where formerly enslaved Africans founded the town at the edge of the Tar River.

Scientists say that if we continue to burn fossil fuels and fail to take further climate action, sea levels could rise a hundred feet and the ocean may return to Edgecombe County.

Princeville was founded at the end of the Civil War by formerly enslaved Africans who fled to Union Army camps on a bump of flood-prone land along the south bank of the Tar River near Tarboro. They named it Freedom Hill, as lore tells it, because that’s where Union soldiers read the Emancipation Proclamation to the liberated people. Over the past 150 years, Princeville has survived at least eight major floods, including two “500-year” floods in 17 years: Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. According to scientists, the combination of the town’s neglected, insufficient levee and climate change threaten to cause more frequent and catastrophic flooding and erasures from this marginal land.

The flood risk is so great that most businesses have left Princeville, leaving few economic opportunities for young people who ultimately move away. The choice for many in Princeville is between staying to preserve their historically significant home, or leaving.

Princeville has persisted despite racial intimidation and river inundation. The people of Princeville face dire challenges, but the real story is their courage. They refuse to succumb to environmental despair. They have deep roots that the river can’t dislodge, and fight against all odds to save their home.

Climate changes are occurring faster than we can adapt, and the window to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change is quickly narrowing. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, temperatures are on track to climb to nearly 3.2 degrees Celsius, to Pliocene temperatures—or higher—beyond 2100, without immediate climate action.

Scattered across eastern North Carolina are portals to this hotter Pliocene Earth. When the old whales died, their bones settled in the ancient seafloor and fossilized over millions of years. The same intense storms that cause the Tar River to flood Princeville erode these fossils from the creek and river bottoms, revealing the remains of this ancient marine world.

The prehistoric whales beneath Princeville have something to teach us about climate resilience and solutions. In an epoch-spanning symbiotic relationship that scientists are just beginning to understand, these whales and the tiniest plankton became integral to the Earth’s carbon cycle which keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by storing it in the deep sea. It’s a cycle that in turn helps regulate global temperatures.

Humans are destroying this cycle. It took millions of years for greenhouse gasses to accumulate and warm the Pliocene climate. Modern humans have only existed for 200,000 years—a blink of an eye in the Earth’s time scale. It’s taken our burning fossil fuels for just 200 years to raise carbon levels from around 287 ppm to a peak of around 421 in 2022. Those levels are higher than they’ve been in about 3.6 to 4.5 million years, when temperatures were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer and sea levels were 70 to 80 feet higher.

Our ecological-climate emergency has its origins in colonialism, extraction and exceptionalism—in cotton and sugar farming, slavery, whaling and coal; in the mindset that the Earth can support unfettered growth, and that humans are separate from nature and the vast expanse of geologic time itself.  The same mindset that legitimized the theft of Indigenous land; the mindset that invented racial caste systems; the mindset that saw whales and Black people as things to be hunted, slaughtered and enslaved for profit. The same mindset that results in segregated towns like Princeville.

I have reported and photographed this story since 2019 and spoke to over two dozen people, including locals, scientists, experts, historians, government officials, and activists.

Climate change mitigation isn’t just about changing consumption habits. It gives us an opportunity to organize more equitable societies, governments, and economies that work more symbiotically with one another and the Earth.

Natural solutions to climate change can be found all around us: in the cycles of the soil and the sea that sustain all life on Earth, and in the ways our ancestors learned to live in reciprocity between species thousands of years ago. Solutions are found in the relationship that Black people have with the land; they are found through Indigenous knowledge that all life is related, that humans thrive if we cooperate with and give back to nature. They can be found if we imagine a world beyond extraction and profit, if we listen to the whales and study the rocks.

Justin Cook is a photographer, journalist and artist based in Durham, North Carolina. His long-term photographic essays and narrative journalism projects tell stories about resilience in communities living along the edges in America, often by focusing on environmental issues and climate change. He believes storytelling that not only shines light on these issues, but also investigates solutions is crucial to social change.

His work has been funded by The Pulitzer Center Connected Coastlines Initiative, The North Carolina Arts Council, The Puffin Foundation, and honored POYi, The Society of Professional Journalists, and American Photography. His clients include Duke University, The Guardian, The Marshall Project, The National Audubon Society, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Trace, The Washington Post, and others


Homecoming Part I
A Black town in a floodplain persists and forges its own future despite unnatural disasters, policy failures, and white supremacy.

Homecoming Part II
Can Princeville’s recovery plan succeed despite obstacles? A resident displaced by flooding fights to return home to Princeville.

The Soil Farmers
Black farmers heal the soil, fight climate change and provide healthy food to their rural communities.

The Whales of Fishing Creek
The remains of prehistoric worlds beneath Princeville reveal climate prophecies for our future, and climate solutions in the sea.