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Hard work and a slap to the face: How one man became a leader of two historic Black communities

This is part 2 of a five-part series documenting the history of the Winton Triangle community and the C.S. Brown School. It’s a story about the struggles that befell a pioneering community and the values that survive all these centuries later to sustain hope for the future. Read the rest of the series here.


Intellect and talent were never problems for Bobbie Jones. His classmates remember him as one of the smartest people in the room, whichever room it happened to be.

But deep down, nestled in a place maybe he didn’t recognize at the time, something placed limits on him.

It was doubt. The slightest notion within, causing him to pause before striving for success.

In part, the encouragement of others brought out the belief in him. Sometimes in the kinds of ways that make you feel loved and supported. Other times, with a slap to the face.

However it came, that encouragement unleashed a quiet confidence that has emboldened him to hold the dreams, and lead the futures, of two special Black institutions.

As principal of C.S. Brown High School STEM, Jones leads the first standalone high school for African Americans in this state.1

About 50 miles southwest on Highways 11 and 111, a group of former slaves long ago established a home for themselves. They called it Freedom Hill. In 1885, Freedom Hill became the first town in all of America incorporated by freed people of color.2 They call it Princeville today. Principal Bobbie Jones is its mayor.

Jones is about carrying values from his past and instilling them in the communities’ futures. But he almost missed out on that purpose.

You’ll usually find Bobbie Jones with an easy smile, whether behind the desk in his office or roaming the halls of C.S. Brown High School STEM. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

“I was going to be somebody’s CEO,” Jones said. “I was going to be an entrepreneur. That was my goal. But sometimes it takes you getting slapped in the face to realize that maybe this is not meant for me. And I really believe that this is where I was supposed to be all along. I had a different destiny.”

Princeville, historical treasure and the community that shaped Jones

Jones grew up in poverty, the son of sharecroppers living just outside of Conetoe, down the road from Princeville. He spent most of his life living just outside or within the storied town’s boundaries. He knows its history well.

As the Civil War was coming to a close, hundreds of slaves gathered at a rather ordinary knoll about a mile southwest of one of the busiest ports along the Southern slave trade. There, on a parcel of land that would become known as Freedom Hill, they listened as Union soldiers read aloud orders that set them free.3

These freed slaves needed a home. They ended up settling on and around Freedom Hill in Edgecombe County just south of Tarboro. There, they began an experiment of self-determination. Though similar in spirit, it was categorically unlike the Winton Triangle.

For starters, the settlement’s location was not self-determined. More than 10,000 slaves lived in Edgecombe County at the time, and they looked for a home amid bitter postwar sentiment.4 Many whites did not want to cohabitate with the newly freed slaves, but this was the labor force that had built their tobacco and cotton empires. They needed Black labor on their farms.5

Freedom Hill was so situated, but surrounded by swamp — not enough land or water to truly thrive. And its position along the Tar River was susceptible to flooding.6

“Their existence in this space was not a matter of chance or choice, but instead the discarded and unwanted space was what former slaveholders allowed them to occupy,” Richard M. Mizelle Jr., an associate professor of history at the University of Houston, wrote.7

At the time of Princeville’s founding, roughly 400 people lived there.8 They chopped trees, prepared land, and built homes. But the community lacked the cooperative spirit of the Winton Triangle.

The mobile museum doubles as a sign, reminding those driving past the Princeville Museum and Welcome Center of the town’s history. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

In 1903, some white residents nearby lobbied the North Carolina legislature to revoke Princeville’s charter and fold the town into Tarboro. According to the Town of Princeville, “The Tarboro Southerner, the local newspaper controlled by white supremacists, urged Tarboro to annex Princeville because blacks were deemed unruly, beyond white ‘law and order.’”8

Princeville avoided annexation and the community of freed slaves grew — only to face another threat: nature.

Between the years of 1800 and 1958, the Tar River flooded seven times. The people persevered, and by the 1990s, Princeville’s population was nearly 2,000. Then, in 1999 Hurricane Floyd barreled through and sent the waters rising 20 feet. It destroyed homes and much of the community’s history. Only 940 residents remained according to the 2000 census.10

Jones, 60, wasn’t alive when the town’s charter was threatened. He was born just after the town’s 1958 flood. His experience reflects the more recent history of Princeville. He remembers a fairly stable and self-sufficient town.

The land on which his parents sharecropped may as well have been his own. He didn’t think of it any other way. He watched his parents work hard in the fields, and when he wasn’t in school, he joined them.

Bobbie Jones finds his stride

Molded in these times, Jones had a sense that anything was possible. But it coexisted with that doubt inside.

“I was always a hard worker on the job, but I barely did anything in the classroom,” he said. “I could do it, but I was lazy.”

Jones was happy with a ‘C’ on his report card. And his parents didn’t get too angry.

“Momma and Daddy could barely read,” he said, “so they couldn’t argue with my ‘C’s.”

He served in the military after he graduated high school, and after that he figured he would attend college. Boasting only modest grades, he doubted he would succeed at a four-year institution.

He enrolled at the now-closed Hardbarger Junior College of Business in Raleigh. To his surprise, he won an award for being a top business administration student. It gave him some confidence to continue at a four-year institution, so he enrolled at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

That’s where Bobbie Jones hit his stride. He realized that he belonged there all along, graduating as student body president with several honors.

Jones figured his newfound drive would propel him to the head of big businesses. He set off to conquer corporate America. His classmates didn’t see him as the corporate type, but he ignored their skepticism.

He picked up a master’s in business administration from Howard University and worked his way up to manage one of seven divisions in a Fortune 500 company.

His first year in that role, he said he brought in more business and cut more costs than any other division. That’s why what happened next shocked him.

“At my evaluation, I thought they were going to reward me, but instead they fired me,” Jones said.

Based on the explanations he received, the promotion of other individuals, and the sixth sense that comes when you’re a Black man in America, Jones said he believed race was a factor. It was his first conscious experience with racism, he said.

“I could not find a job anywhere,” Jones said. “Even though I had an MBA from Howard, I served my country well, and I worked hard, nobody would give me an opportunity.”

He wouldn’t find work for 18 months. Jones had to sell his house and move back in with his mother in Princeville.

His introduction to education

He didn’t know it at the time, but losing that job would put him on a path of purpose. And that path started with a phone call from a former colleague at that Fortune 500 company. He remembered Jones as a leader and hard worker. And the man’s wife needed a business teacher for a nearby school.

Suddenly, Jones went from corporate America to a job teaching at-risk students at what was then called Phillips Magnet Middle School in Edgecombe County.

“I didn’t really think about education before,” he said. “But when they called, they were talking about a business teacher. Well, I had experience in business. But when I got there, the at-risk teacher had just left, and that’s what they needed. Well, I wanted a job, so I said OK.”

Barely a few weeks into the year, Jones recalled, he knew he belonged in that classroom — not a boardroom. As he spent time with the kids, building bonds with all of them, he watched their attitudes and their grades improve.

“It was easy to see that these kids didn’t fail because they were not intelligent,” Jones said. “They failed because they didn’t care — or really, they didn’t think anybody else cared. They didn’t think anybody believed in them.”

These kids were like Jones. He wanted to provide them the love and connection that he was given as a young man, the stuff that helped him establish confidence and start caring about things like grades and his future.

The next year, he was assigned 23 students who had all failed the sixth grade.

“They were no dummies,” Jones said.

He started knocking on doors on Saturday mornings. He sat with parents and grandparents. Jones wanted the families to know him and to know what he expected of their kids. Above all, he wanted them to know he loved their kids and cared more about developing relationships with them than about their scores on a standardized test.

“I knew that we had to have a relationship,” Jones said. “Anytime you go anywhere you have to build that positive relationship with the students. Sometimes you have to build that positive relationship by starting with the parents. But the children have to understand you care.”

“If you love your children and they know you love them, then they will move mountains for you.”

All but two of those 23 students passed their end-of-grade reading and math exams. What made Jones even prouder: They maintained an A/B average even after they left his class.

Practicing turnaround: First with a town, then with a school

It was while he was teaching in 2013 that Jones ran for and won election as Princeville’s mayor. Nearly 15 years had passed since Hurricane Floyd, and Jones’s campaign focused on bringing good news to the town.

“For every negative article about Princeville,” he said, “I wanted to make sure there were five celebrating what is positive about this place.”

Bobbie Jones sits steps away from the site where, 150 years ago, Union soldiers read the Emancipation Proclamation and the founders of Princeville settled around what they called Freedom Hill. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Princeville had rebuilt after Floyd, and the population bounced back to more than 2,000.11 But Jones said there was infighting among the town’s leaders, and he didn’t like the town’s image.

“It was like people from outside would be saying, ‘These people don’t know how to run their town,'” Jones said. So he focused on building pride and connection in the community. Even after Hurricane Matthew flooded the area again, he kept that focus.

He ran and won re-election fighting against an option for town residents to sell their homes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.12 That would be the end of Princeville, he argued. Instead, his campaign said the community would build back “bigger, better, and bolder.”13

He has fought systemic and economic challenges to this goal. He’s had trouble luring grocery stores and restaurants to the community. But his response is rooted in community, working to set up a community farmer’s market among other initiatives.

“We’re not asking for outsiders to save us; we’ll do it ourselves,” Jones said. “But just don’t interfere.”

It’s an attitude reminiscent of the self-sufficient spirit of the Winton Triangle. And Jones says it’s dependent on deep connections among, and service toward, one another in the community.

Connection is part of the fabric of Jones. It comes as easy for him as he moves about his town as it does when he moves through his school. It’s one of the reasons, he thinks, he was chosen as C.S. Brown’s principal in 2017.

Not long before he arrived there, the school was a shell of its former glory. It needed a turnaround. More important, it needed some love and connection.

It was the perfect role for Jones.

Part 3. The fall and rise of C.S. Brown, the first high school for African Americans in North Carolina.

Show 13 footnotes
  1. Staff Reports, “C.S. Brown’s legacy lives on,” Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, March 30, 2010.
  2. Joe A. Mobley, “Princeville, a Black Town in North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review 63, No. 3, July 1986, pp. 340-342.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Our History,” Town of Princeville NC, https://www.townofprinceville.com/town-of-princeville-nc-history.html.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Richard M. Mizelle, Jr., “Princeville and the Environmental Landscape of Race,” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, Issue Two, Spring 2016, pp. 16-28.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Town of Princeville.
  9. Town of Princeville.
  10. Town of Princeville.
  11. Town of Princeville.
  12. Jess Bidgood, “A Wrenching Decision Where Black History and Floods Intertwine,” The New York Times, December 9, 2016.
  13. Facebook page for the Re-Elect Bobbie Jones for Mayor campaign.
Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC. He exists to shine light, including by telling stories about under-reported issues.