Community members joined together Nov. 10 to acknowledge, celebrate and bless the work to repair and restore Reaves Chapel, one of the Cape Fear region’s most culturally and historically significant African American structures.
Once the restoration is complete, the chapel will anchor the town of Navassa’s future greenway and the northern end of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, according to a release Tuesday from North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. The corridor is a National Heritage Area recognizing the Gullah Geechee people who have traditionally resided in the coastal areas and the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The gathering included a moment of silence, a blessing by the Rev. Steve Holland and a symbolic ringing of the Reaves Chapel bell by Jacki Davis and Kariba David, who represented all past members of the congregation and their descendants.
The Reaves Chapel Restoration Project is a partnership of the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, which was formed to preserve African American history in North Carolina communities, and North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, which conserves lands with scenic, recreational, historic and ecological value.
Reaves Chapel was built by people who were enslaved and who farmed the property where the Cedar Hill Plantation and other neighboring rice plantations once stood. Eventually, the church fell out of use and into disrepair.
“Today, we celebrate the preservation of this historic place, so that generations who come after us can know the significance of what our ancestors did,” said Al Beatty, president of Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation.
“This church had its origins in the 1860s, and was built on the Cape Fear River, on a plantation by our ancestors. Later, in the early 20th century, the congregation, with logs and a team of oxen, moved this beautiful church about a mile or so, from its original location on the riverfront to its present location on Cedar Hill Road,” Beatty continued.
Jesica Blake, associate director of the Coastal Land Trust, introduced the construction company leading the restoration effort.
“I am especially delighted to introduce Balding Brothers Construction, whose specialists have designed the planned restoration, who have lifted the entire structure, and who are now ready to begin the foundation and masonry work which is so urgently needed to restore the structure,” Blake said.
She explained that the design of the grounds, including parking and landscaping, as well as designing the separate restroom facilities, is underway concurrently. In addition, the stained glass windows are being restored offsite and will be installed when completed.
“The hope of the Coastal Land Trust and Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation is that Reaves Chapel, once its restoration is complete, will be transferred to the State of North Carolina and will be managed in perpetuity as a state historic site. We’re so grateful to all the steadfast volunteers and the funders for their support, which have made this ground-breaking possible,” she continued.
Coastal Land Trust board member Nick Parker said that the organization is thrilled to have been asked to help save Reaves Chapel, “a cultural resource in the Cape Fear, a region rich with natural and wildlife resources, as well.”
Blake thanked Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, community members and families of the Reaves Chapel congregation, and the other key partners and funders including Historic Wilmington Foundation, Orton Foundation, the town of Navassa, Paynter Law Firm, and private individuals whose gifts make it possible to begin the Reaves Chapel Restoration Project.
Contributions to the Reaves Chapel Restoration Fund can be made online.