The film FREEDOM HILL spotlights the oldest town incorporated by freed, formerly enslaved people in the United States.
Not long after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism, Resita Cox worked as a TV News reporter. The Kinston native’s first assignments drew her closer to home in Eastern North Carolina. One story especially resonated with Cox; it called for closer examination and telling than in a single news segment or two.
“Just one month into my career as a TV news reporter, I would witness something devastating - my hometown and the entire Eastern part of the state was once again underwater after Hurricane Matthew ravaged the coast.”
Unlike many of her colleagues at the news station at the time, many of whom were from out-of-state, Cox had a unique vantage point on the events unfolding.
“I was the only reporter forced to grapple with reporting on the flooding while also housing some of my family in my one-bedroom apartment as they had to evacuate their home due to the storm.”
Cox’s on-the-ground reporting experiences and her close personal connection to the community and their stories informed and inspired the endeavors of her first documentary film project called FREEDOM HILL (2022).
“I grew up in the same area as Princeville and didn’t learn about the town's historical significance until I was sent there to cover the flood damage. This film is of severe personal significance to me as my roots are in North Carolina, and thus in Princeville.”
Founded in 1865, Princeville NC is the oldest town incorporated by freed, formerly enslaved people in the United States. According to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Coastal Resilience Center (CRC), there were 2,200 residents in Princeville prior to the 2016 Hurricane Mathew storm.
About 450 homes were destroyed during the hurricane and subsequent flooding, and an estimated 80 percent of the town was underwater” according to the CRC. Nearly two decades earlier – in 1999 – the town had suffered similar losses in the wake of Hurricane Floyd.
For Cox, Princeville’s story of struggle, resilience, and survival in the face of these devastating challenges cannot be viewed in isolation.“The threat to these communities continues to grow as the ability to rebuild continually becomes lesser. As with my grandmother’s house, relocating is not an option, due to financial reasons as well as spiritual. We are bound to this land by history. There is a spiritual connection to these spaces that deserves to be protected and passed down. It is not just the future of Princeville that is uncertain, it is the future of our entire country and planet.”
The making of the film was very much a passion project and a labor of love for Cox and her crew, drawing strength and motivation from a strong desire and responsibility to tell of and about home, with hope.
“This film is my first love letter to the South. As a North Carolina native, born and raised in the rural, eastern part of the state, I’m committed to showing people why we call this great state home. North Carolina raised me. It's where I fell in love with writing, with poetry, and with sunsets. One of my favorite parts of filming Freedom Hill in NC was the drive through the country back roads from Princeville to Greenville. We would always be met with the sunset on our journeys back home, as if our sweet Carolina was applauding our work for the day. We filmed Freedom Hill with a barebones crew, just myself as director and producer, my trusty DP, and associate producer. Being a small, and more importantly all Black crew meant we could get closer to the story than any typical film crew (typical meaning majority if not 100% white crews).
“People who aren’t from our state often come in and extract our stories, aided by generations of racist policy and oppression, white filmmakers attempt to build careers off of capturing our struggles and triumphs and almost always fail to hit the mark in these movies. That’s because in order to accurately capture and translate it, you had to be there. You had to bear witness to the community to make sense of why some of us never leave this utterly flawed and complex place, especially as Black folks. Freedom Hill is my translation. It is a love letter to not only my home state, but to my ancestors, and to the community that raised me.
Cox hopes that the lasting impact of the documentary is to help empower her community to reclaim the narrative for their story. She founded the Freedom Hill Youth Media Camp, a four-week documentary production program connecting North Carolina students to Princeville’s black history. At the Camp, students learn to conduct interviews, acquire oral history skills, explore archives, and lean basic documentary filmmaking skills.
To learn more and/or support the camp, visit: thefreedomhilldoc.com/impact