This 1920s house provided the impetus to restore a historically black community
When Derrick Evans paid $10,000 for a dilapidated, sinking home in Turkey Creek, Mississippi, he thought it was a modestly affordable way to help stem some of the losses in his hometown. A historically black settlement founded in 1866 by former slaves, Turkey Creek had slowly seen its heritage watered down — through annexation to nearby Gulfport, through redevelopment, and through rising waters and Gulf Coast hurricanes. For Evans, a history professor who had left Mississippi to teach in Boston, the 2003 purchase was a small way to fight back. Little did he know it would put him on a two-decade crusade to preserve his community’s architectural heritage.
It’s a campaign that now has a centerpiece: the house Evans bought in 2003 has been renovated and preserved as a community history center and museum for Turkey Creek. The square one-story building, which had sunk a foot into the sodden ground, was falling apart inside after being vacant for several years. Restored in collaboration with Mississippi-based firm Unabridged Architecture, the building has become a rallying point for community preservation.
Evans launched this preservation campaign after an ominous visit to the home in 2001. The community’s historic cemetery, which housed the remains of generations of black residents, including former enslaved community founders, was being bulldozed to make way for an apartment building. It was only the latest development encroachment since the community was annexed by majority-white Gulfport in 1994. Evans, a trained historian, was appalled by the destruction of the cemetery. ” Who do this ? And worse, who is sitting here watching this happen? ” he says. “Sometimes it takes two for something to go wrong.”
So Evans decided to start moving things forward. He returned full-time in 2003, around the time he bought the old house. He now owns several buildings and properties in Turkey Creek. “I’ve been on a creeping mission,” he says.
It’s all tied to the ramshackle house that Evans bought for $10,000. He learned after buying it that it was no ordinary house. In the early 1900s, this was actually an office building for a naval stores factory, where local pine stumps were boiled in gasoline and made into utility poles, railroad ties and boat building materials. The building Evans bought was the factory paymaster’s office, built in the 1920s, where mostly black factory workers lined up every day to be paid in company certificates . It was a rare and early site of well-paying industrial jobs open to black workers, and many of those employed by the factory built homes and raised predominantly Black Turkey Creek families.
The building also had its own tragic history. In 1943, the Naval Stores factory exploded, killing 11 men, including 9 black workers. Part of the reason the paymaster’s desk was still standing was its unique construction. The walls and ceilings were covered with a thin layer of cement plaster – an early form of fireproofing, according to the architects who led the restoration.
“It’s a very small building in the middle of these giant factories that boil gasoline. But it was also the paymaster’s office. So the money was in there and the files were in there”, says John Anderson of Unabridged Architecture, “They anticipated the danger.”
Evans saw an opportunity. Recognizing the importance of the Paymaster’s Office and several other historic buildings in the community, he initiated an effort to have Turkey Creek listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005, the area began to receive more attention and funding for preservation, including the migratory bird stopover at Turkey Creek. “The whole area before Katrina was an undiscovered historical and cultural treasure that if you didn’t live there, you wouldn’t know about it,” Evans says.
Evans’ effort to preserve the buildings was nearly crushed, just as a request was submitted to the Home Office. “In February 2007, I’ll Never Forget, Black History Month, the city sends a code enforcement officer to condemn five buildings [including the paymaster’s office]”, says Evans. “The city wanted it torn down for understandable reasons, but also for the larger reason of one less thing to do in Turkey Creek.”
A last-minute volunteer effort led by Evans brought the building up to code before the city could tear it down. The community was placed on the National Register later that year. And that’s when Evans’ preservation effort gained significant momentum. A documentary film was made. The daily show visited and made a segment. Paymaster’s Office has qualified for historic preservation grants, and in 2015 was named one of the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s 10 Most Endangered Places. Unabridged Architecture got involved to help with its preservation, and the project eventually secured nearly $500,000 from the National Park Service Civil Rights Grant Fund.
The restoration of the paymaster’s office began in earnest and an architectural fact-finding mission was launched. “We had to go in there and document what was left, and also try to really follow the history of the building,” says Anderson. “It was kind of a mystery at that time.”
Archival research uncovered an old photograph of the Naval Stores Factory, from before the 1943 explosion, which gave a better idea of what the building originally looked like and how how it was used. “In the very corner of this photo was this building. We could see maybe 20 percent,” Anderson says.
The architects could see from the photo that the square building had at some point been moved and rotated 90 degrees. The payer’s window was visible from one side. Another side had two doors a few feet apart. “I always thought it was the entrance. But it never really crossed my mind until I really reclaimed the space and imagined using it and people came in and out that these are actually [separate] black-and-white entrances to a place of business,” says Evans. “Jim Crow was working flat out.”
The restoration of the building kept these two doors in place and added a feature that had long since disappeared. In the file photo, the architects could barely make out what appeared to be a large porch. They surrounded the building with a wide wrap-around porch, turning a slightly odd cement-covered cube into an inviting space to find shade and watch the sunset. The restoration also reused around 90% of the original building materials. After delays due to the pandemic, the restoration was completed last summer.
“Getting funding from outside, from the National Park Service’s civil rights branch, is really an acknowledgment of what this community stands for and what it has lost over the past 75 years,” says Allison Anderson of Unbridged Architecture. “It’s more than just restoring a building.”
Evans began to transform the interior into a historic center and modest archive, with documents and memorabilia from the community, the factory, and the area’s misunderstood industrial past.
“These are not cotton plantations, but pines, forests and plants, which explains the growth and development of the economy and culture where I come from,” says Evans. “There wouldn’t even be these places on the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, especially inland north of the Gulf, if it weren’t for the native long needle [or longleaf] pine and the coastal streams and bayous through which they were transported to the coast.
In addition to the historical artifacts he displays, Evans has also created an outdoor installation with 11 chairs facing the former factory site, representing the 11 men who died in the 1943 explosion. He hopes further expand the historical context, linking to nearby stands of pine to recreate the scene of a pre-industrial camp that laid the foundation for the area’s passage as a naval stores powerhouse.
None of this was in the original plan, insofar as there was one, in the early 2000s.
“I bought the building because it was old. I didn’t know the story even though I’m a historian. I knew I would make it,” Evans said. “I can tell you that I have been blown away by the piecemeal learning so far more and more about this property and this larger story I have stumbled into.”
He hopes the new cultural history center will help bring the history of Turkey Creek to the surface. “Architecture, and frankly all planning and development,” he says, “either anchors or detaches communities and people.”