More Than a Trail
The North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail is being created to preserve, protect and celebrate vital African-American history in Brunswick County.
Along the coast of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, the nationally recognized Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor pays tribute to the Gullah Geechee people and their culture. As descendants of Africans who were isolated and enslaved on the rice, indigo and cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast, the Gullah Geechee are known for their distinctive language, music, arts and crafts.
Here in Brunswick County, Brayton Willis saw an opportunity to spotlight the history of the Gullah Geechee.
“When I sat down with the president of the Brunswick County NAACP, I was explaining a lot of the things we could be doing and one of those was celebrating the Gullah Geechee Corridor, Willis says. “The celebrations come in many forms, and I suggested one could be a greenway/blueway trail like what was being proposed in Navassa. That led to the further discussion of how we could develop the concept of the project, one thing led to another, and finally, I had a conversation with the National Park Service, who loved the idea.”
For those not in the know, a greenway is a land-based park trail for walkers, hikers, bicyclists and limited-mobility users, while a blueway is a linear water-based trail for canoeists and kayakers.
The initial idea was prompted in 2020, and since then Willis has completed Phase 1 (Concept Development) for the project and developed a project-specific 501(c)(3) named The North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway Blueway Heritage Trail. With Phase 2 in the works, the next steps for the 30-mile greenway/blueway trail spanning from Navassa to Southport are underway.
Willis, who serves as the chairman and executive director of the organization, has brought in four board members to assist as the group begins grant writing and master plan development.
“Barnes Sutton, recently celebrated as one of Wilmington’s 40 under 40 young professionals, has worked in planning development and has a great historical perspective on the Gullah Geechee heritage, culture and history,” Willis says. “Veronica Carter brings with her exceptional knowledge of the planning processes, and as a Leland councilwoman is deeply engaged with local members of Navassa, Leland and Belville communities. George Yu has years of management experience in global supply chain and international business and has a dedicated interest in making this project happen, and Simone Allen brings with her tremendous organizational leadership and an abundance of energy that helped bring the ‘Boundless’ sculpture to the Cameron Art Museum honoring Black soldiers who helped win the Civil War.”
The towns of Navassa, Leland and Belville, the City of Southport, Brunswick County and Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization have signed community resolutions of support for the trail. Nonprofit support has come in from North Carolina NAACP Conference, Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, East Coast Greenway Alliance, Terry Benjey Foundation, Cape Fear Cyclists, Cape Fear Rural Transportation Planning Organization, Southern Environmental Law Center, Brunswick Environmental Action Team and Cape Fear River Watch.
While Willis has gathered a great team and community support, there is much to do, including finding additional funding. The United Way of the Cape Fear has joined as a fiscal sponsor.
Willis has also been actively connecting with the local community, and through this met George Beatty, chairman of the North Carolina Rice Festival.
Since 2013 Beatty, his brother, Alfonso Beatty, and a community group have been working to acquire and restore Reaves Chapel in Navassa. The historic chapel is directly connected to the Gullah Geechee people and is named after Edward Reaves, who was formerly enslaved at Cedar Hill Plantation. Reaves Chapel is one of the last surviving structures from the Civil War and post-Civil War period that preserves vital Gullah Geechee heritage.
The Beatty brothers grew up a quarter mile from the church. The chapel’s restoration is separate from the trail — and in conjunction with the N.C. Coastal Land Trust, which purchased the chapel in 2019 — but the chapel will eventually serve as a point of interest on the trail. Restoration of Reaves Chapel will be to its 1911 to 1915 incarnation, a timeframe when there were no indoor restrooms. For indoor restrooms, the group decided that they would recreate a version of the Phoenix Colored School that was also within the community, yet there was more.
“We decided if we were to do the church and school, we should probably look at the entire history of African Americans in the region from the time of emancipation up until recent years,” Beatty says. “As a result, we decided to create an entire village that would show just this, including a barn, shotgun house and juke joint. The church is almost complete in its restoration. As for the village, we are in the process of securing five acres behind the church. Funds for planning the village are also close at hand, and fundraising will be done one step at a time.”
Eventually, the two projects will interconnect, and the Reaves Chapel project will provide a stop-off point for those on the trail. Willis is planning his own components as well including artwork and five separate demonstration garden locations in both Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
“These will serve as an attraction point around and along the trail,” Willis says. “The whole mission of our effort is to preserve, protect and celebrate the Gullah Geechee heritage and culture in Brunswick County. That will be the primary focus of everything we do with the heritage trail.”
Moving forward, the North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail organization is seeking grant funding; developing a website with outreach materials; developing a Trail Master Plan with N.C. State University Coastal Dynamics Design Lab (CDDL) consultants along with faculty and students from the N.C. State University Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning; developing an Eco-Tourism Economic Impact report; applying to the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program for Phase 2 and 3 technical assistance; and creating community workshops for 2023.
Can you help?
Donations for the North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail are needed.
Make checks payable to: United Way of the Cape Fear Area and write “GG Heritage Trail” in the memo. Checks can be mailed to: Attn: NC Gullah Geechee Greenway Blueway Heritage Trail United Way of the Cape Fear Area, 127 Grace Street, Wilmington, NC 28401.
For more information, Brayton Willis can be reached at email@example.com.