The Daily Southerner
“Happy birthday, Princeville!”
That was the message Princeville Elementary School students shouted in unison at a Wednesday afternoon celebration in the school cafeteria.
Wednesday marked Princeville’s 128th birthday. On Feb. 20, 1885, Princeville became the first town incorporated by blacks in the United States.
Freed slaves founded Princeville in 1865. At the time, the town was known as “Freedom Hill.”
Fourth-grader Amarius Dozier spoke about Turner Prince, a carpenter who was one of Freedom Hill’s first residents and after whom the town later was named.
“He created a town that African Americans could come to to be free,” Dozier said.
Fourth-grader Matthew Hammonds spoke about Abraham Wooten, a figure symbolizing “victory.”
“He was the elder responsible for founding Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church,” Hammonds said. Founded in 1876, the church was the first in Princeville.
Another fourth grader, Armoni Whitehead, spoke about Mary Ward Matthewson, former principal at Princeville School and a historical figure symbolizing “determination.”
Dr. Fred S. Wood, president of the W.A. Pattillo Alumni Association, presented Princeville Principal Sandra Joyce with a display of photos of the old Princeville Graded School building, principals, students and diplomas for the occasion. After participating in the planning of the Princeville birthday celebration, Joyce sees the importance of having a permanent display of the school’s history.
“It’s been a learning experience — just seeing the pride my staff has in the traditions they’ve been doing,” said Joyce.
“If they learn about the history, it should serve as an encouragement or motivation for them to come back and want to put something back into this community,” said Rosa Williams, a member of the schools’ diversity committee.
“Our school is predominantly black and most of them reside here in Princeville, so we feel it’s very important for them to learn about the history of the town that they live in,” said kindergarten teacher Sheila Mayo-DeLoatch. “They need to know how they arrived here. It’s very important for them to know their history and to see how much we have progressed from history.”
Learning about pioneering African Americans, such as Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala. bus for a white passenger, has taught Whitehead the meaning of the freedoms she enjoys today.
“It shows you what people had to do back then and what we can do that they couldn’t,” Whitehead stated. “We don’t have to sit on the back of a bus. We can sit wherever we want.”
“When we started school, (in 1965) the blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus,” said Haron Beatty, who performed with a traditional African group called the Tryon Palace Jonkonnu Players at Wednesday’s celebration. He said talking about slavery is “uncomfortable,” but it is an important subject to discuss because “the suffering that slaves went through built what this nation has become.”
Among those slaves that helped build our nation were the founders of Princeville. The slaves’ journey to freedom began with the Emancipation Proclamation, as fourth grader Aniyah Joseph shared with the audience at Wednesday’s celebration.
“The importance of it was to free the slaves and Abraham Lincoln signed it, on Jan. 1, 1863,” Joseph said. “It helped (former) slaves think bigger and wiser because they were free.”