Reimagining Reaves Chapel
Thanks to Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, N.C. Coastal Land Trust and a grant from The Orton Foundation, one of the Cape Fear region’s most historically significant African American structures will be a community center once again.
Some of Al Beatty’s fondest memories of growing up in the town of Navassa are the times he spent at the modest white church known as Reaves Chapel.
A short walk from his childhood home, Reaves Chapel served as a community place of fellowship, celebration and worship. Each spring, Beatty and other children in town would gather at the church in the afternoons to play, socialize and prepare for their Easter speeches. If someone died in the community, the news spread by the ringing of the church bell. Revival meetings would bring in nearly a hundred people, filling the small structure to its capacity. In honor of the church’s rich history of community traditions and cultural significance, Beatty is now leading the efforts to preserve the legacy of Reaves Chapel for generations to come.
In the antebellum era, rice plantations lined the banks of the Cape Fear River. Slaves known as the Gullah Geechee people had been brought in from coastal Africa to cultivate the land, and most remained living in the area even after the Civil War ended. In the late 1800s, a group of former slaves from Cedar Hill Plantation built Reaves Chapel, which has since become one of the oldest landmarks of Gullah Geechee heritage in southeastern North Carolina and is an integral part of the area’s African American history.
The end of the 19th century saw a shift in major transportation mode from the river to inland roads. To keep parishioners from having to travel all the way down to the riverbanks for service, the congregation decided to make the church more accessible by relocating it.
“A group of men in the community got together to physically move the church using the resources they had: logs, oxen, mules and horses,” Beatty says. “They picked the church up and rolled it out on a roughly two or three mile journey to its current location on Cedar Hill Road.”
The chapel’s new location and name came from Edward Reaves, a formerly enslaved man who donated his land to the congregation. The church served the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination for almost a century. However, dwindling attendance and structural disrepair left the building completely abandoned by 2006. Shortly after, Beatty felt called to lead the efforts to give the chapel new life.
“I knew the last people in the community who attended the church, so it was impressed on me to continue the legacy of Reaves Chapel,” he says. “This church is important to me because growing up, it was the church where we did our Easter speeches. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, the children would have all prepared a few words related to the resurrection of Christ, and we would each go up to the pulpit in front of the crowd and say our speech.”
Reaves Chapel also served as an assembly spot during times of segregation. African Americans weren’t allowed to gather in many places or attend major events in the area, so the church took on the role of event center and concert hall.
“We had noted speakers and entertainers come perform at Reaves Chapel,” Beatty recalls. “Since we didn’t have telephones, the ringing of the church bell let you know something was going on. I’m hoping that when we cut the ribbon on the restored church, we will ring the bell once again, because I’m looking forward to that.”
In 2013 Beatty and other community members formally joined forces to help save the church. They formed the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, then partnered with N.C. Coastal Land Trust and began petitioning the AME Church for release of Reaves Chapel. In March of 2019 the Coastal Land Trust purchased the church with funding provided by the Orton Family Foundation, an organization devoted to assisting small cities and towns with community planning efforts.
“When we learned about the connection of Reaves Chapel to the communities founded by the descendants of enslaved people who worked on the antebellum rice plantations, we were glad to get involved,” says Camilla Herlevich, executive director of the Coastal Land Trust. “Now that the Coastal Land Trust owns Reaves Chapel, our goals are to stabilize and repair it, and then to restore it as a historic and cultural site.”
According to Beatty, the first step in preserving the church is to stabilize its foundation and roof. Once the building is structurally sound, the restoration team can begin restoring the inside and outside of the building. In the interim, both the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation and the Coastal Land Trust are striving to raise money to fund the restoration efforts.
“We’ve partnered with the town of Navassa and are petitioning with the town of Leland to help us with the church,” Beatty says. “We’re going to associate with Leland’s Rice Festival next year, because we are a part of that history since the people who built the church came from rice plantations. We are also in talks with the Historic Wilmington Foundation, who have endorsed our efforts, and we’re going to try to work with them as a true partner to get direction on how to restore the church.”
Having been decommissioned from the AME Church, Reaves Chapel will never again be used for traditional worship services. Instead, it will serve as a location for weddings, celebrations and other community events. As one of the oldest churches in southeastern North Carolina, the hope is that Reaves Chapel will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“With the restoration of this church, we are hoping to have a historical landmark that will be a legacy to the community,” Beatty says. “It’s important that our kids and the generations coming up behind us have an idea of the history concerning the enslaved community from the area.”
Can You Help Save Reaves Chapel?
Donations towards the Reaves Chapel Restoration Fund will help stabilize, repair and restore Reaves Chapel, one of the Cape Fear region’s most historically significant African American buildings.
Donate online: coastallandtrust.org/reaves
Mail a check: Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 7253, Navassa, NC 28051
For more information: Coastal Land Trust, (910) 297-0196; Al Beatty, (910) 520-2517
Photos by Mark Steelman