Old paint chips fly in the air then fall to the ground, as the eight man crew blast the building with high pressure hoses. A ring of soggy paint chips encircles the church as the crew prepares it for an overdue coat of paint. The church is Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church, the oldest building in America’s first chartered African American town, Princeville, North Carolina.
Retired U.S. Army 1st SGT Michael D. Bennett hired the crew of professional painters to paint the church because “I’m tired of Princeville looking like this.” He told Associated Press reporter Calvin Adkins “I used to walk pass this church as a little boy. I was scared because it seems like that statue was staring at me.” That statue of the church’s founder, Abraham Wooten has sat on the porch of Mt. Zion since 1896.
|The old town hall was renovated and turned into an African American cultural museum in 2009. The building was originally built as a school for black children in the late 1800s.|
Princeville has had its share of misfortune. On September 5, 1999, hurricane Dennis dropped 16 inches of rain on the town. Ten days later, on September 16th hurricane Floyd dropped another 12 to 20 inches of rain on the town. The waters of the Tar River rose and rose until the banks of the river could contain it no more. The water topped the levies and rushed through the streets of Princeville, destroying more than 700 homes. Photos of caskets floating down the streets of Princeville appeared in newspapers and on television broadcast across the United States. With the help of the federal government, state government, and donations from celebrities like musical artist Prince, the residents rebuilt.
On July 30, 2012 North Carolina’s Local Government Commission took control of Princeville’s financial books because the town was close to defaulting on its debt. To help pay down the town’s debt the commission is collecting unpaid taxes and overdue utility bills, paying the town’s day-to-day bills, and reducing town operations. The commission has not said when they will return fiscal control back to the town. When the commission impounded the books the first time, in 1997, it was almost a year before they gave fiscal control back to town officials.
1st SGT Bennett also hired a crew to remove the dirt and over grown grass from the sidewalks of two blocks of Church Street; the street where he grew up. Bennett renovated two buildings on Mutual Blvd, where he plans to open a used car dealership. He also purchased another 11 acre lot in town. Bennett said “I could have started my business anywhere I wanted to, but I chose Princeville because this is my hometown and it is very near and dear to my heart, I want to give back to the town that gave so much to me.”
“… I believe I owe Princeville.”