Getting to know Navassa, a historically Black community in Brunswick County, North Carolina

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.   

Photograph of the Navassa town sign. Three flags, the North Carolina flag, American flag, and a third flag, stand behind the town sign.

https://portcitydaily.com/local-news/2018/07/27/minutes-from-wilmington-via-i-140-navassa-is-now-poised-for-a-development-boom/

UNC Libraries 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.  

EPA officer stands on plastic sheeting with more than a dozen soil and rock samples to check for contamination.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3267787/North-Carolina-s-contaminated-town-Former-rice-farmers-struggle-survive-poisoned-land-decades-abuse-corporations.html.

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 in the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC.  

black and white photograph of a railroad station. Pictured are the railroad tracks, the station and station platform, and a few buildings of the town in the background

“Halifax County: Weldon (Seaboard Air Line/Atlantic Coastal Railway), circa December 1971
Black-and-White Print,” North Carolina Railroad Station Photograph Collection, circa 1896-1977 (bulk 1953-1976). Collection Number P0073. Wilson Special Collection Library, UNC

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 name this village Navassa because of the huge fertilizer plants at that location.  

Wilson 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 county?   

Image of a dilapidated church. The white paint is peeling off of the exterior walls and the door is barred, but the stained-glass windows are still intact, and the reds, yellows, and blue panes are vibrant.

https://www.starnewsonline.com/news/20170624/navassa-church-has-rich-history

This 140-year-old chapel in Navassa, in Brunswick County, was the worship center of many former slaves after the Civil War. Today a group of locals hopes to preserve it along with their Gullah-Geechee heritage.  

Even though there isn’t a collection at UNC devoted to Navassa, NC you can piece portions of its history together from diverse sources. The town is growing and as infrastructure improves, parks, new business ventures, and a community center are rising.    

Contributed by Community Driven Archives Grant Research Assistant, Claire Du Laney 

  

     

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