BRUNSWICK COUNTY — In recent years, there has been growing local interest in preserving the history of the Gullah Geechee, African descendants brought to the southern U.S. as slaves to cultivate the rice plantations that once lined the Cape Fear River’s western banks. A major blueway and greenway system is in the works that would double as green space and an educational opportunity, connecting historic plantation sites or significant land proposed for parks from Southport to Navassa.
Along this future trail, a single structure barely stands. Reaves Chapel in Navassa is considered one of the region’s most culturally and historically significant African American structures. Built in the 1860s, one of the oldest African American buildings in southeastern North Carolina was at risk, until recently.
The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation have joined with a goal to salvage the chapel and is making significant progress, recently hosting a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the long-awaited restoration.
“It is one of the last pieces of history that we’re able to save, which is why it is so significant,” said Jesica Blake, associate director of the Coastal Land Trust. “There will be a lot of great work done in the town of Navassa that elevates the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage corridor, but this structure is a historic artifact of it.”
In November, work to restore the aging church on Cedar Hill Road resumed after some initial stabilization efforts in 2019. A construction team lifted the structure and is commencing the foundation and masonry work, both urgent needs. Designs are underway for the grounds’ parking, landscaping and separate restroom facilities. Its stained glass windows, once attached to the front, were taken offsite and will be reinstalled once restored.
The new foundation will incorporate original pillars and new ones, necessary to support the church. Workers will repair and replace the roof and fix the floors.
“They’re saving and using whatever is salvageable, which is why it’s so complicated,” Blake said. “And then, when everything is done in the restoration process of the structure, they’ll re-install the bell tower and the bell steeple on the top.”
The restoration could finish within the next year. In the future, the chapel will anchor the greenway –– a multi-year project currently in its infancy –– and the northern end of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The corridor stretches from Jacksonville, FL, to Wilmington and was established by Congress in 2006.
The Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation has had its eye on Reaves Chapel for nearly a decade now. About three years ago, it partnered with North Carolina Coastal Land Trust on its efforts. The land trust wrote a proposal to The Orton Foundation, the North Carolina affiliate of The Moore Charitable Foundation, and in March 2019, was able to purchase the property with funding from the foundation and the Historic Wilmington Foundation.
That year, the top-priority work began to stabilize the building and move its contents into storage, once inventoried. While that was ongoing, they started the planning process with the engineer and builders.
Project leaders have been continuously fundraising for the approximately $1-million endeavour. As of this point, they have the cash to resume the remainder of the work.
It’s been roughly 150 years since the wood frame church was built by newly freed slaves, who farmed the nearby Cedar Hill Plantation and neighboring rice plantations, along the bluffs of the river.
Around 1911, the congregation used logs and oxen to move the church inland, about a mile from its riverfront post to its current location. The new land was owned at the time by Edward Reaves, who was once a slave at the plantation and whose last name was later bestowed upon the chapel by the congregants.
Though Gullah Geechee people made numerous contributions to the region, and many ancestors reside in Brunswick County today, Reaves Chapel is one of few surviving structures that represent their culture. After generations of the African Methodist Episcopal utilizing the chapel and its cemetery, the congregation dwindled and its doors shut in 2006.
Since then its deterioration has sped up, victim to the prolonged consequences of weather. The damage reached the point to which it is no longer inhabitable.
“It held on for as long as it possibly could to give us time to make this project come to light,” Blake said.
Covid-19 has extended the fundraising process, but now Blake estimates about 80% of the money needed is there.
The Coastal Land Trust and Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation plan to transfer the church once fully restored to the State of North Carolina. The government would then manage it in perpetuity as a historic site.
Blake said there is no timeline to achieve that status, but project leaders are in talks with representatives from the state.
“We are doing everything we can to make this process easy and amenable for them to be able to take it and that it meets all its needs,” Blake said. “Nothing’s a done deal till it’s done, but we have been very clear on the communication of this intent and path and are hoping everything goes smoothly.”
Donors can contribute to the project online here.
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