Previously in danger, one of the last vestiges of Brunswick County’s Gullah Geechee culture will be saved
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 United States as slaves to cultivate the rice plantations that once lined the riverbanks west of the Cape Fear River. A major system of blue and green lanes is being developed that would also serve as a green space and educational opportunity, connecting historic plantation sites or significant land proposed for parks from Southport to Navassa.
Along this future path, a single structure barely stands. The Reaves Chapel in Navassa is considered one of the most culturally and historically important African-American structures in the region. Built in the 1860s, one of the oldest African-American buildings in Southeast North Carolina was in danger until recently.
The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and the Cedar Hill / West Bank Heritage Foundation have teamed up in a bid to save the chapel and are making significant progress, recently hosting a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the long-awaited restoration.
“This is one of the last pieces of history we are able to save, which is why it is so important,” said Jesica Blake, Associate Director of Coastal Land Trust. “There will be a lot of excellent work done in the town of Navassa to elevate the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, but this structure is a historical artefact of that.”
In November, restoration work on the aging church on Cedar Hill Road resumed after some initial stabilization efforts in 2019. A construction crew lifted the structure and begins foundation and masonry work, both urgently needed. Designs are underway for lot parking, landscaping, and separate washrooms. Its stained glass windows, once attached to the facade, have been removed from the site and will be reinstalled once restored.
The new foundation will incorporate original and new pillars, necessary to support the church. Workers will repair and replace the roof and repair the floors.
“They save and use whatever is salvageable, which is why it’s so complicated,” said Blake. “And then when it’s all done in the process of restoring the structure, they’ll reinstall the steeple and the steeple at the top. “
The restoration could be completed next year. In the future, the chapel will anchor the Green Lane –– a multi-year project currently in its infancy –– and the northern end of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The corridor runs from Jacksonville, Florida to Wilmington and was established by Congress in 2006.
The Cedar Hill / West Bank Heritage Foundation has had an eye on Reaves Chapel for almost a decade now. About three years ago, he partnered with the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust as part of its efforts. The Land Trust wrote a proposal to the Orton Foundation, the North Carolina branch 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, priority work began to stabilize the building and move its contents to storage, once inventoried. During this time, they started the planning process with the engineer and the builders.
Project managers have continuously raised funds for the company of around $ 1 million. From that point on, they have the money to take over the rest of the work.
It has been around 150 years since the wood-frame church was built by newly freed slaves, who operated the nearby Cedar Hill plantation and neighboring rice plantations along the river cliffs.
Around 1911, the congregation used logs and oxen to move the church inland, about a mile from its riverside post to its present location. The new land was then owned by Edward Reaves, who was once a slave to the plantation and whose last name was later assigned to the chapel by worshipers.
Although the Gullah Geechee made many contributions to the area and many ancestors now reside in Brunswick County, the Reaves Chapel is one of the few surviving structures that represent their culture. After generations of the African Methodist bishopric using the chapel and its cemetery, the congregation declined and its doors closed in 2006.
Since then, its deterioration has accelerated, victim of the prolonged consequences of bad weather. The damage has reached such a point that it is no longer habitable.
“He held on as long as possible to give us time to bring this project to fruition,” said Blake.
Covid-19 has extended the fundraising process, but Blake now estimates that around 80% of the money needed is there.
The Coastal Land Trust and Cedar Hill / West Bank Heritage Foundation plan to transfer the once fully restored church to the state of North Carolina. The government would then manage it in perpetuity as a historic site.
Blake said there is no timeline for achieving that status, but project managers are in talks with state officials.
“We are doing everything we can to make this process easy and accessible for them to follow and meet all of their needs,” said Blake. “Nothing gets done until it’s done, but we’ve been very clear about communicating that intention and that path and we hope that all goes well. “
Donors can contribute to the project online here.
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