Raising a Phoenix from the Mud
North Carolina’s HBCUs help rebuild first town founded by Blacks
PRINCEVILLE, N.C. — “Is this what it was like when God sent the flood?
Marshall Harvey, the director of community relations and community development at Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., says a student asked him that question after seeing first-hand the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Floyd last September.
While the flooding from Floyd left much of eastern North Carolina under water, the importance of rebuilding one community in particular — the town of Princeville — has been placed at the top of the list for African Americans throughout the state and across the country. And historically Black colleges and universities have been at the forefront of those rebuilding efforts, which the federal government estimates will cost $80 million.
“We went down there to do some of the dirty work, to help with the cleanup. It was very enlightening to the students,” Harvey says, noting that volunteers traveled more than 60 miles each way daily in their relief efforts. “They had never seen that kind of devastation before.”
St. Augustine’s was one of a host of HBCUs to offer help in the rebuilding of Princeville, a community of 2,000 that was the first town in America to be incorporated by Blacks. Those efforts got a boost from President Clinton last February, when he created by Executive Order the President’s Council on the Future of Princeville, N.C.
“As the first city in the United States founded by former slaves, Princeville, N.C., holds a special and highly significant place in our nation’s history,” Clinton said in a statement announcing the Executive Order. “It is enormously important that as we … honor the long and proud history of this uniquely important town, we also take steps to preserve it for the future.”
The higher education community began taking those steps soon after the devastation occurred.
According to Dr. Gloria R. Scott, president of Bennett College, representatives from the state’s 11 HBCUs joined officials from Pembroke University, a tribal institution for a meeting during the first week in October with State Health Director Dennis McBride. It was at that “organizing meeting,” as Scott describes it, that the 12 institutions decided on a unified approach to help alleviate the distress caused by the flooding.
“We got packages of materials [about the devastation] and saw that the flooding had really disproportionately affected African Americans,” Scott says.
Adds Harvey: “We [at St. Augustine’s] embarked upon a drive shortly after we came back to school [last year] to aid in the plight of many of the folks down in that area. Because of the large African American population [affected by the flooding], we felt that we needed to take a very active role in the relief efforts.”
The schools began by soliciting help from members of the community in which they were located.
St. Augustine’s “started a campaign to get food, clothing, other necessities, toys, water,” says Harvey. “We solicited many of the businesses in and around the Raleigh area for donations. Many of our students have jobs and they were soliciting their employers. We had a bazaar here on campus and some of the exhibitors donated their time and a portion of their receipts. It was a campus-wide as well as a community-wide effort.
“The best time I had [in Princeville] was the day we delivered toys to the children just before Christmas,” he adds. “Toys R Us, Toy City, Value City — they made the donations and we took those toys down and the kids were excited about that. Christmas was a little bit brighter.”
That scenario was duplicated on other campuses and in other communities throughout the state. And it is the hands-on assistance and face-to-face giving that has meant the most to the communities getting the help.
As for the residents of Princeville, Harvey says, “they have been very receptive” to the relief efforts by the higher education community. “With all that devastation, they still have their chins high.”
According to Princeville Mayor Delia Perkins, HBCUs have provided research engineers to study the effects of the flood on the area’s ground water. The floodwaters carried waste products from the area’s hog, chicken and turkey farms, leaving contamination everywhere.
Additionally, Perkins says, the institutions provided counselors to help deal with the psychological impact of the flooding and business advisors to help the local economy get back on its feet, among other things.
“It’s been a wealth of information and knowledge that we’ve been able to pull from,” she says.
But perhaps most importantly, the mayor says, has been the assistance the town has received from the students who have been cleaning the muck out of houses, working to return dislodged caskets to the cemetery and doing yard work.
“It’s an advantage to have all these college students to come down here and be an example for our young people,” she adds. “It helps us and it helps the town by showing our young people that they can make something of themselves.”
For many of the college students, helping rebuild Princeville and other devastated communities around the state gave them a chance to fulfill community service requirements — a commitment that is mandatory at all the state’s HBCUs and public institutions.
“We have a major expectation that all of our students will do at least 40 hours of community service,” Scott says. “But of course, that leads to doing many more than 40 hours.”
That commitment doesn’t seem to bother the students, higher education officials say — particularly when the cause is one as important as resurrecting communities like Princeville.
“Nobody seemed to be tired or afraid. That was the good part about it,” Harvey says of the students’ volunteer work. “You know how girls have those long fingernails and worry about breaking them and getting them dirty. Well they just put on gloves and got to work without a second thought.
“And [the students] met some of their colleagues from other colleges and universities and it really was an enlightening experience,” he continues. “It was important for them to understand that you give back to the community that has given to you.”
Scott also notes that students helped the flooding victims with their contacts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance companies.
“The students also helped with making long distance calls to FEMA,” Scott says. “It might not seem like much, but a lot of the people didn’t know how to deal with FEMA, so we sent kids out with cell phones so they could make the calls on site. And [the students] helped walk them through the questions. That was very important. And our mass communications students videotaped some of the neighborhoods and houses so they would have a record for insurance purposes.”
And the residents of Princeville have special ties to St. Augustine’s.
“We [at Saint Augustine’s] had a personal commitment because some of our family members were affected by the devastation,” Harvey explains. “We have an historical relationship with Princeville. There’s a historic mission there that the Episcopal Church runs that has been in existence since Reconstruction. So when they asked us to go down and help rebuild the church,” the institution felt a special obligation to heed the call.
According to Dr. Richard Robbins, associate dean of the school of agriculture at North Carolina A&T State University, students from that institution also helped Princeville residents — first by organizing food and clothing drives locally. The staff members of the school of agriculture also played Santa to the town’s residents, providing gifts for many of the families that had lost everything during the flooding.
Then over Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend, 55 N.C. A&T students traveled to the town to help in the cleanup. The students have been back several times, Robbins says, helping residents file forms for federal and state assistance.
The state’s HBCUs are not the only institutions offering assistance. According to Scott, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s medical school has sent students to flood-ravaged areas to give physical exams. UNC officials say that the institution’s student chapter of the Carolina Association of Black Journalists and the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center also have sent student work crews to sites in
“On the first trip, we stripped houses and a church down to its beams and studs so that skilled workers could then start rebuilding,” says Harry Amana, interim director of the Institute of African American Research and faculty adviser to the Black journalists. “We took out all of the infrastructure; that was the hardest work. It’s unskilled labor but it took a lot of strength.
“The second time we went, we could hardly recognize the buildings” the students had worked on, he continues. That trip, “we were painting, plastering, putting in insulation and landscaping.”
“But more work still needs to be done,” Harvey says. St. Augustine’s has “four students this summer who are working with the county emergency relief team in Princeville. They were involved in the cleanup and now they are involved with the rebuilding. They are not real construction workers; they are just helping out where they can.”
Scott also says that students attending summer sessions at Bennett continue to help in the relief efforts.
While the rebuilding continues — currently, all the Princeville municipal offices are located in a series of trailers on the town’s main road — the institutions are gearing up for the coming school year’s volunteerism. The colleges now seem ready to direct a good deal of their energy toward the youth of the devastated areas.
“The kids need some tutorial help,” Harvey says, noting that they missed a good part of the school year because of the flood. Harvey has proposed establishing a Saturday academy where students from Saint Augustine’s could “help those kids who have gotten behind.” While acknowledging that the plans are still in the formative stage, he says, “We hope to kick it off this fall.”
Scott also foresees Bennett students offering tutorial assistance, adding: “Many of the [colleges and universities] have decided to help collect books. All of our libraries purge books each year and we’re going to try to get them into the hands of the youngsters and to their schools.”
The efforts to rebuild Princeville will get another boost this fall. In September, a national telethon will be held to try to raise $5 million to help reconstruct the town.
“It’s time we started taking care of our own,” says Marlon D. Jackson, president of the Major Broadcasting Cable Network, one of the telethon’s supporters, and former member of the singing group, the Jackson Five.
“We’re going to raise this phoenix up from the mud,” proclaimed actress and producer Daphne Maxwell-Reid at the June press conference here announcing the telethon.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com