Friday, August 19, 2022

How Navassa is working to preserve its culture as one-fourth of its town is owned by developers

Over 2,000 acres of land - about one-fourth of Navassa's total - is owned by out-of-town developers with an expressed interesting in building new homes and communities. How will the community adjust to the inevitable change? "We’ve got a little gameplan in place so the folks here in this little community won’t get displaced."

Mayor Eulis Willis flips through a book he wrote in 1991, "Navassa: The Town and its People." (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Mayor Eulis Willis flips through a book he wrote in 1991, “Navassa: The Town and its People.” (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

NAVASSA — To some, Navassa contains untapped, development potential. To its mayor, a sixth-generation descendant of a rice plantation ex-slave, Navassa is a family to preserve.

A predominantly black community in northern Brunswick County, Navassa is nestled on fertile marshland, where the northwest Cape Fear River and the Brunswick River converge.

RELATED: Minutes from Wilmington via I-140, Navassa is now poised for a development boom

“I am the result, and Navassa is the result, of these rice plantations,” Mayor Eulis Willis said.

Comprised of seven former rice plantations, Willis once traced back nearly every resident’s genealogy to the area’s estates. “Once the plantation lifestyle was over, they didn’t move very far from home,” he said.

Today, nearly one-fourth of the town is owned by LLCs and holding groups with an expressed interest in developing in the land. With thousands of acres now slated for single-family homes, live-work-play communities, and mixed-use developments, how will Navassa and its people adjust?

The story of Navassa

Willis has served Navassa for an “inevitable” 40 years, since his first town appointment in 1978 — one year after the town’s incorporation. Inevitable, because of Willis’ natural curiosity of the land, and his desire to lead.

“A leader is just somebody that cares and has a little bit of vision,” he said.

In 1875, a man named Charley Waddell, who is believed to have worked on the Bellville Plantation, obtained the first acre of land in what is now Navassa, Willis said.

A map showing old rice plantations in the lower Cape Fear region. (Port City Daily/ Courtesy Eulis Willis)

“He had four daughters, and his oldest daughter had a daughter, and that daughter had a daughter, and that daughter had a son, and that son had a son and that’s me,” Willis said.

Tired of a gap in documentation in his community, Willis sought out area libraries for answers. Later, he put his findings together in a book published in 1991, “Navassa: The Town and its People.”

“There was such a lack of information about black folk, then somebody did something,” he said.

Willis’ book has sold every copy printed, save for two he keeps around his office. It’s available online for free download and later led to his appointment as Vice Chair of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

“When I wrote the book in 1991 Navassa was 579 people,” Willis said. “A lot of these folks were like family.”

At the time, the community was 95 percent black, at around 2 sq. mi. in total. Now, Navassa is about 74 percent black, according to a recent U.S. Census estimate, at about 14 sq. mi. “We annexed some areas and some folks have moved in,” Willis said.

During his first few years as mayor, Willis campaigned to get Sturgeon Creek’s old bridge replaced, what he said was the “worst bridge in the state.” Years passed, and finally, the state obliged.

“As they were driving the piling into the ground in order to get that bridge, you know what they found?” Willis asked. “Creosote was bubbling up under the bridge.” 

The discovery of the toxic wood preservative by state officials led to a 250-acre area, formerly the Kerr-McGee Creosote Plant, being placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list in 2010. After years of federal and state intervention, re-development plans have recently been presented to residents.

Navassa and development

Where the Sturgeon Creek Bridge meets its northern bank, there’s a sign with Willis’ name on it. But it’s not his bridge.

“Leland decided they didn’t want my name on the bridge because I was too militant,” he said. Because Leland-Navassa town limits fall in the middle of Sturgeon Creek, a section of highway, beginning at the halfway point of the bridge to the following interchange, was named after Willis.

As Leland, and the northern portion of Brunswick County has grown throughout the years, so has the interest in Willis’ community.

In April, Navassa entered into a preemtive agreement with Leland. The agreement takes one step out of the voluntary annexation process, required for property owners in the Leland Industrial Park.

Since land in the park is closer to Navassa than it is to Leland, the agreement grants Leland preemptive permission to obtain over 1,000 acres of land, granted property owners petition the annexation themselves. Though it may seem like a loss for Navassa, Willis said that land is of no interest to his town; his highest priority is to develop strategies to “combat declining affordable housing stock and gentrification.”

“People are always attracted to dollars and dollars can always find the folks that need dollars,” he said.

With so much land set to change, Willis said his Council is ready for the expected growth.

“Right now we’ve got a little gameplan in place so the folks here in this little community won’t get displaced,” he said.

Author’s note: Stay tuned, this is part one of a two-part series on development in Navassa.

Mayor Eulis Willis points to his family's lineage that he traced back in his book "Navassa: The Town and its People." (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Mayor Eulis Willis points to his family’s lineage that he traced back in his book “Navassa: The Town and its People.” (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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