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Why do they call it Navassa?

Ben Steelman

The small town in northeastern Brunswick County is named for Navassa Island, a 2-square-mile body of land in the Caribbean between Jamaica and Haiti. In 1857, an American sea captain discovered huge deposits of phosphorite (incorrectly identified at the time as guano, or bird droppings) on Navassa.

In 1869, the Navassa Guano Co. was set up at Baltimore to mine and import this material as fertilizer. Wilmington businessman Donald MacRae was a prime mover on this project; importing guano would provide a return cargo for ships carrying turpentine from Wilmington to the Caribbean. The company established its major U.S. station and plant on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, near the main railroad bridge. The name “Navassa” stuck, and in 1885, the U.S. Post Office approved the name for the village growing up at the site.

The plant (which soon discovered other sources of phosphorus) prospered. Other plants also located at Navassa: Armour Fertilizer in 1919, Royster Fertilizer in 1927 and Smith-Douglas Fertilizer in 1946. These plants were a major local employer for decades, with 2,000 workers at their height. The last of these plants was destroyed in a spectacular fire in October 1991.

The town was incorporated in 1977. Until 1985, the home of the first mayor, Louis “Bobby” Brown, served as de facto town hall. With a large African-American population, Navassa is known for its annual Martin Luther King Day parade.

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2 Responses to “ Why do they call it Navassa?”

  1. On October 15, 2010 at 8:53 am Anne Russell wrote:

    Fascinating. I learned a lot. Thank you.

  2. On February 17, 2012 at 12:26 pm veronica wrote:

    this was very knowledgeable to me things i never knew this is my farhers home town.