Resisting Environmental Racism: 'Freedom Hill' Filmmaker Resita Cox on Climate Change in Black Communities

By Brigitte McIndoe for WORLD

The alarm has been ringing louder and louder on climate change for decades. As sea levels rise higher and wildfires burn fiercer, faster and more frequently, questions persist about how we can staunch the lasting effects of our unstable environment. Many vulnerable areas around the world face the threat of losing land and homes to floods, fires and other disasters, but “Freedom Hill” filmmaker Resita Cox chose to focus her new documentary on why certain communities have been dealt a more detrimental hand than others.

The film introduces us to Princeville, North Carolina, historically known as Freedom Hill, the first town in the United States chartered by Black people. It’s a tight-knit neighborhood in low country prone to large-scale, dangerous flooding. Throughout “Freedom Hill,” Cox simultaneously showcases the physical and emotional damage that residents of Princeville endure, the historical and modern systems that have created a highly-skewed level of susceptibility to climate change, and what local organizers are doing to protect their home.

“Our communities are actually now on the front lines of climate change. And if the government doesn't reckon with this racial history, we're going to continue to be on the front lines of climate change without the proper protections,” Cox said. “No one's broken it down to us like that before.”

Cox, along with DeVante Hudson, the Chief Organizing Director of the The Chisholm Legacy Project, spoke with WORLD about what led her to Freedom Hill and how the film can serve as a starting point for communities and governments to understand and address environmental racism.

WORLD: Tell us how growing up in North Carolina and your background in journalism made you want to make a film about Freedom Hill.

Resita Cox: I grew up just an hour away from Princeville in Kinston, North Carolina. It was like a summer country daydream: I remember riding bikes and being outside all the time, and I didn't realize that was magic until I moved to a bigger city in the Midwest. 

I started out as a TV news reporter out of college. I was covering Hurricane Matthew, which had my hometown underwater. I drove through Kinston on a National Guard boat, and you could only see the steeple of the church. I was doing around-the-clock flood coverage, and I was sent to Princeville with no context – just that this town is also underwater and we need to do a story on it.

That's when I see the sign that says, “Home of Freedom Hill, First Town Charted by Black People in the Country.” And I'm like, what? At this point, I've graduated from college, I went through my woke, Afrocentric phase – I thought I knew all of what there was to know about Blackness. And now here I am. I Christopher Columbus-style discovered Princeville as a young adult, when it was already underwater, and I was instantly confronted with the history that they did not teach me as a Black person. 

I was sent there to do a one-minute news story on the flood damage, and that was the moment where all of my tensions with being a journalist came [to a head]. Being a TV news reporter didn't allow me to participate in or be accountable to community in the way that I wanted to. I would just show up on a bad day, and you wouldn't see me again until it was a worse day. I was reckoning with news not being the right container to hold this story, because it was so nuanced and complex.

It wasn't just that Princeville is underwater; it's that the first town that freed Africans formed legally after the Civil War is underwater. And I couldn't really present that in one minute. Shortly after that, I tried to transition, which I eventually did, into filmmaking, with “Freedom Hill.”

W: The film hones in on the topic of environmental racism. What does that look like in Princeville?

DeVante Hudson: [Climate justice is] mostly associated with the participation of those who advocate in that space. You have a majority of white activists who are advocating for climate change. We're talking about the polar caps melting and heat and global warming – these are general, broader terms. Environmental justice is more of a hyper-focus: It's fixated at the intersection of race and climate change. It is the juncture that America has created because of how segregated and disenfranchised African Americans have been in the history of America.

Thinking about environmental justice or racism is speaking about an ecosystem that's created because of systems that have been perpetuated, laws that have been enacted, value that has been placed on particular communities and not others. What I've come to understand about Princeville is a narrative that is happening across many, particularly Southern Black, cities. Trace this back to 1865, during Reconstruction, where you have free Blacks who are now occupying land. More times than not, they were given land that was less desirable, lands that often flooded.

You're talking about the reality of what it is to even occupy land that was not desirable by the masters, by the slave owners, and that, historically, has been passed down through generations to always be the less desirable land. So, Princeville happens. With sea level rises, that makes even more of these floodplains susceptible to greater impact. It's literally being drowned out because of the factors that have contributed to its existence and its establishment.

Resita Cox: Growing up in North Carolina was recognizing, living through, and surviving hurricanes and floods. As a young person, whenever a hurricane came, my grandma gathered us up, turned all the lights off, everybody be quiet, let the Lord do his work. That was really the extent of the explanation of the environmental stuff that was going on around us. I didn't have the words, understanding or connective tissue yet to describe that as environmental racism; I didn't understand why all the Black neighborhoods and communities in eastern North Carolina were the ones that were underwater after we had hurricanes. We never talked about it in those terms as a community, either.

I learned the term “environmental racism” at 23 years old through a hip hop song. I made it all throughout college as a journalism and political science double major, and I’d never heard that before. When I started doing research on this film, that's when I realized, “Oh, this is happening because of that.” 

W: How do social, economic and cultural factors intersect when we talk about environmental racism?

Resita Cox: Eastern North Carolina is the poorest part of the state. Flood-prone towns get asked, “Why didn't people just evacuate?” I grew up very poor with my grandma; we had no capacity to evacuate. You just sit in the house and you pray you’re not the ones that get hit. It's the same thing when it comes to relocating. I think the question of, “Why don’t you just move?” is a question of privilege. I often ask people back: Imagine if your great-great-great-grandmother’s house and land was still in your family. It's your history. I think it was 1999, the federal government recommended that they relocate the town. They put it to vote, and Marquetta [Dickens, one of the film’s protagonists]’s grandmother was the tie-breaking vote that said no. She said to relocate Princeville is to erase our history.

To relocate Princeville and any Black community is to give the government a pass on their wrongdoing. I often say that our communities are on the front lines; we're going to be the first ones to wash away. We're already washing away. It's their responsibility to correct this. They created slavery; they're the reasons why our communities are where they are now.

We have beach towns with multi-million dollar homes that are protected. They have rendered some type of plan that prevents their houses from flooding. We have houses on the West Coast that are in wildfire land. And they still have the resources to rebuild and to figure out different ways to protect those communities. It's money. Oftentimes our value – spiritual, historical – cannot be found on the systems that we use in capitalism. But if you ask us, and if you go there, and if you watch “Freedom Hill,” you'll see we have so much cultural capital that is priceless.

DeVante Hudson: Army Corps and engineers have done these types of plans to understand how we stop levies from breaking and help establish and enforce reefing infrastructure. The problem has always been, “What are you going to do with these Black folk?”

It’s such a direct question because we have to start talking about it in that way. Unfortunately, America has created the race problem. We cannot allow our lineage, history, culture, identities to be wiped and washed away for capitalism, industry, big business, for corporations that want to see thriving communities, but don't want to see that those thriving communities look like any other group besides theirs. We don't have the luxury to be somewhere else. This is where we are.

W: What kind of solutions do you want to see for North Carolina and the rest of the U.S.?

DeVante Hudson: There has to be an organizing of particular leaders and groups in order to do a rapid response around these communities. If we aren't going to get a resolution from the people that we elect, then we have to do this by any means necessary. We have to form our own coalitions to navigate and maneuver the systems. And that means that we also have to start Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in order to be able to buy back land. That's what we're seeing happen even in Princeville with [Marquetta Dickens’ organization] Freedom Org. 

Resita Cox: Right now, Princeville, as well as a lot of Black communities, sit with zero protection. Princeville can be wiped off the map, quite literally. 

There’s a lack of urgency by our politicians. There's only urgency when Princeville is underwater. Marquetta's grandmother has a picture in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton. He signed an executive order to commit to fix and find solutions for Princeville. It is 2024. He signed that over 20 years ago. Nothing has happened.

On this land that was built on the forced labor of Black people, nothing is going to just be given to us. We have to organize for everything. Find your calling, and then figure out how to use it for our liberation. My calling was storytelling. So I’m going to just keep making films until they come fix it.

W: What do you want the audience to take away from the film?

Resita Cox: I made this film for Black people, specifically for Black people growing up in eastern North Carolina. Selfishly, I made it for baby Resita. Baby Resita really needed someone to come in and explain what was going on, why we were the poorest communities, and why we kept getting flooded. When I learned why, I wanted to spread it to the rooftops. We grew up down the street and they didn't teach us. That's why I have to put in a film. 

I hope we're breeding the next group of organizers. If the solution hasn't been found in my lifetime, the ones coming after us may have the solution, and we’ve got to make sure they have the knowledge and the tools to do the work. My goal was to, of course, do something about the flooding in eastern North Carolina and to educate people about what really was going on and why. Organizing is a long game, so instead of begging someone to believe us, we can show them. We've documented it, and you can't really walk away from “Freedom Hill” arguing that there's not a problem that needs to be fixed.

Freedom Hill is now streaming online, on YouTube and on the PBS app

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