Navassa, NC is one of the towns in our Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance (HBTSA) grant partnership. Located near the Brunswick River and Cape Fear River, Navassa is part of the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area and is less than 20 miles from the coast.
University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill has several interesting collections that encompass the history of this small town. Importantly, these collections provide important documents that speak to the current environmental, ecological, and public health conversations that are occurring in Navassa after the EPA findings of neglect and dangerous practices of the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp Superfund site.
Two important pieces of Navassa’s history are highlighted here. The first was the construction of a railroad in 1867 that connected isolated areas near the North Carolina coastline to urban regions like Charlotte, NC. Photographs and other documents about the two railroad companies, Atlantic Coastline and Seaboard Airlines, can be found at the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The second piece of history is the creation of a guano fertilizer factory, which links this small North Carolina town to a small, uninhabited island in the West Indies. According to the Navassa, NC town website,
Some prudent businessmen led by Donald McRae realized the distinct advantages of locating a fertilizer factory at this location. For years the turpentine industry had been shipping their products to the West Indies without having a product to bring home upon their return. In 1856 large guano deposits were discovered on Navassa Island a small barren island about 15 miles off the coast of Jamaica. McRae and his business partners made arrangements to have the returning ships loaded with the guano and consequently built the Navassa Guano Factory in 1869, which is named after the island…A small village sprung up around this fertilizer factory and in 1885 the U.S. Postal Service named this village Navassa because of the huge fertilizer plants at that location.
The Wilson Special Collections Library has in its collection some of this documentation about the fertilizer and guano industries, available in the “Iron Station (N.C.) Papers, 1852-1878” and the “Marion Butler Papers, 1862-1938.” The North Carolina Digital Collection at the State Library of North Carolina also has some documents that add texture to Navassa’s historic record. Documents, like the 1882 “Annual report of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station” provides evidence of the long-term chemical and ecological abuse of the area.
The town of Navassa is much more complex than the legacy of Brownfields and ecological harm cause by chemical companies. Did you know that there is a strong Gullah-Geechee connection to this area of the state?
Even though there isn’t a collection at Wilson Library devoted to Navassa, NC, you can piece portions of its history together from diverse sources. The town is growing and as infrastructure improves, new parks, business ventures, and a community center are rising.