By CALVIN ADKINS
THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
PRINCEVILLE — Retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Michael D. Bennett's drive on Church Street last Thursday caused him to toss and turn. What he saw was dirt and grass covering portions of the sidewalk on the street where he grew up. To make matters even worse, the oldest building in the town, Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church, actually had the appearance of the oldest building in town. White paint has sporadically peeled off the wood-structure making visible the original color of the planks that were nailed on the building in 1890 by children of former slaves.
For years, Bennett, who now resides in Fayetteville, has talked to just about anyone he has crossed paths with about the deplorable conditions of the entire town's infrastructure, overgrown vacant lots, and dilapidated buildings.
After Thursday's drive, Bennett had enough. He decided to "put his money where his mouth is" by hiring a crew from the Tarboro Community Outreach shelter to clean two blocks of Church Street and a professional crew to paint the church.
"I tossed and turned all night long, thinking about the condition of the street that I grew up on," Bennett said. "It was disgusiting. When I woke up, I decided to do something about it. It's not just Church Street that needs to be cleaned. It's the entire town. I'm tired of Princeville looking like this."
Bennett is a staunch businessman who has purchased property in Princeville in an effort to start multiple businesses. One of the first businesses he hopes to open is a used car dealership at 100 Mutual Blvd. Bennett has completely overhauled the two buildings on the corner lot. He also cleared a wooded area, which has given the property a modest uplift. He has also purchased 11 acres near the lot. Bennett said he is working on plans to develop it.
"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," Bennett said. "I want to give back to the town that gave so much to me.
"A lot of people may ask, "What did Princeville give you? My answer, would be the community that I grew up in taught me the value of life, survival and the pursuit of happiness. When I was in need of money as a teenager I worked in a program that provided money for my school clothes and other necessities. Therefore, I believe I owe Princeville."
Coincidentally, Bennett's summer program job was doing the very same thing that he hired eight men from the Edgecombe County Shelter to do — cleaning the streets.
"Over 35 years ago, I was doing just that," Bennett said while looking at the workers cleaning the street. "Now, to be able to come back and have it done because I want the town to look presentable, makes me feel good."
The paint crew also started on Mt. Zion on Friday by pressure washing the building. The statue of Abraham Wooten, the founder of the church, that sits on the porch of the building was cleaned to near the immaculate white it was when it erected in 1896.
"This church is a big part of Princeville's history and my history also," Bennett said. "I used to walk pass this church as a little boy. I was scared because it seems like that statue was starring at me. All the children in the town had that stigma. And it's the oldest building in town. So I said asked myself, I don't do something about the condition of the church, then who will?
Mt. Zion was once the most popular church in town. For many years the majority of Princeville residents used the sanctuary for funerals even though they were not members of the church.
As time passed, members of Mt. Zion passed away. It's apparent that new members joining were few and far in between. At last count, 15 members were associated with Mt. Zion and rarely does the congregation hold Church services.
Recently Mt. Zion allowed Shekinih Glory to use the sanctuary. The pastor of Shekinih Glory, Ernest White said he was looking into refurbishing the building when Bennett came along. The building was last painted after the 1999 flood that covered the entire town. White said he helped reconstructed the inside.
"It's a miracle that God put it in Michael's heart to do that," White said. "I am so grateful."
Once completed, Bennett hope to continue the perpetual care for the church. As for as the streets are concerned, he hope that someone will join in with him to assist in cleaning them all.
"If you see dirt in front of your house on the sidewalk or grass growing on the sidewalk, clean it up," he said. We can do this together.
"This is not about Michael. It's about the love that I have for the town that I grew up in and its ancestors that fought for this town to be the oldest in America charted by blacks. God has blessed me so know I can be a blessing to someone else."