Washed Away: “Freedom Hill” Explores Flooding Caused by Environmental Racism 

by Kaitlyn Foti Kalosy

Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Resita Cox didn’t understand why her town would flood on a regular basis. She had certainly never heard the term ‘environmental racism’ or ‘racial topography.’ 

It wasn’t until years later, when she was covering a story as a television journalist, that she began to understand the context of why her town, and other towns like it, were at a high risk of flooding and denied the resources to combat it. 

In 2016, she covered flooding that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in Princeville, North Carolina. She saw the signs that declared the town as the very first in the United States that was chartered by Black Americans. Seeing the lack of urgency to prevent the flooding that was happening here, in such an important landmark for Black History, she began to understand why it was happening in her hometown and others that didn’t have the same historical significance. 

“I as a young person couldn’t understand why the eastern part, the poorest part, the Blackest part of our state was being washed away. I didn’t have the political language,” Resita said. 

But now, in her film “Freedom Hill,” she is sharing the story of Princeville, and in doing so, she is sharing the story of all of the towns that were built in flood-prone areas. That is where formerly enslaved men and women and their ancestors were relegated to when they were starting their communities. 

In Princeville, a Black community was built on land that was undesirable to white people at the time. In her film, Resita explains that this is so common that you can predict the sea level of an area based on its racial demographics, known as racial topography.  

Her film also captures the resilience and persistence of the community that resides there today. 

“It’s not just a film; this is my life. My folks are in Eastern North Carolina,” she said. “We are taking on the burden ourselves. We are teaching our young people in North Carolina ourselves about environmental racism and Black history through documentary filmmaking.” 

Resita now calls herself a ‘recovering journalist’ who left television news so that she could be more present in the communities whose stories she wanted to tell and be able to take her time telling them. She is continuing to work with the Princeville community and others to explore how the levees that are meant to protect them are in desperate need of repair. She also founded Freedom Hill Youth Media Camp, a four-week program that connects students in the rural south to Black history through documentary filmmaking. 

Resita sees filmmaking as an opportunity to document the anger, pain and loss of these communities. But much more than that, her work helps to show their strength and the places where they find joy. 

“I’m an abolitionist, and an abolitionist understands that it is not about tearing something down, but about the building of something. Instead of the anger being the fuel, it is the love and joy and appreciation of the resilience of the community that fuels me,” Resita said. 

See “Freedom Hill” on Saturday, April 20, at the Academy of Natural Sciences as part of the inaugural film festival, Confluence: Earthly Films for Philadelphia. It will be shown during the 5 p.m. slate of films programmed by BlackStar Projects. A conversation with Resita will follow the screening. 

Confluence is an environmentally focused film festival in partnership with BlackStar as well as Bryn Mawr Film Institute, cinéSPEAK, the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and the Philadelphia Latino Arts and Film Festival. The weekend-long festival showcases a series of feature, short and documentary films whose work raises awareness of water-related environmental justice and climate change issues across the globe. Each program will feature a panel discussion with filmmakers, scientists and advocates, illuminating how community-driven resistance and advocacy efforts help us envision and enact alternatives to the climate crisis. 

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