Off-the-Beaten-Trail: 4 Ways to Explore Gullah Geechee Heritage in North Carolina

Reaves Chapel. Photo by Hunter James Cox, NC Coastal Land Trust.

By Emily Jaeger

July 5, 2022

In recent years, local historians, community leaders, and activists have begun to pick up steam with the grassroots movement to preserve this crucial piece of North Carolina history.

If you haven’t yet heard of the Gullah Geechee People, you’re not alone. The Gullah Geechee are descendants of enslaved Africans from several tribal groups of west and central Africa, forced to work on the plantations from Jacksonville, NC, to Jacksonville, FL, who have preserved their unique language and cultural traditions to this day. 

However, despite receiving recognition by the US Congress in 2006 with the designation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, much of North Carolina’s Gullah Geechee history and historical sites remain buried in the past. Lack of funding, resources, and wider support have slowed the Gullah Geechee’s work to preserve their own history in southeastern North Carolina. 

Not to mention that for many, slavery is something preferably forgotten. 

Fortunately, in the last five years, local historians, community leaders, and activists have begun to pick up steam with the grassroots movement to preserve this crucial piece of North Carolinian history. In addition to multiple federal and state grants in the works, they have received support from the NC Coastal Land Trust and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

So, if like me, you hunger for anything off-the-beaten trail or the untold story or just want to learn more about the Gullah Geechee, here’s some places to start. 

Reaves Chapel 

2024 Cedar Hill Rd NE, Leland, NC 28451

Reaves Chapel in Navassa, NC, was built in the mid to late 1800s by the formerly enslaved people on the western banks of the Cape Fear River. The original congregants consisted of Gullah Geechee whose stolen labor, knowledge and skills, were used to grow rice on the Cedar Hill Plantation. 

In the early 1900s, when inland roads replaced the Cape Fear River as a major source of local transportation, community members moved the beloved church house, with its signature stained glass windows, three miles inland. After mounting the building on logs, oxen, horses, and mules were used to help roll the church to where it stands today. 

The church remained an active place of worship and community gathering until closing its doors in 2006. During the Jim Crow era and segregation, it was one of the few places where Black people could gather and attend events. 

The church fell into disrepair in the early 2000s. However, through the efforts of local leadership including Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis and Al Beatty, president of the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, as well as the NC Coastal Landtrust, the church is nearing the completion of its restoration project. Visitors can still view the exterior while work is in progress. 

Rice Festival 

Leland Cultural Arts Center, 1212 Magnolia Village Way, Leland, NC 28451

While the Rice Festival, which takes place every March in Leland, NC, is not a historical site, it is a contemporary site of Gullah Geechee heritage. With the slogan, “education through celebration,” the Rice Festival honors the Gullah Geechee, who were brought to the Carolina region because many had the skill and knowledge to plant, grow, harvest and process rice. 

In addition to their contribution to this “Carolina Gold,” the festival shares Gullah Geechee culture and foodways with future generations of Gullah Geechee and visitors. Attendees can participate in a Gullah Geechee Ring Shout and enjoy storytelling, as well as jazz and blues performances. 

Cedar Hill Cemetery 

GPS Coordinates 34.2839° N, 78.0195° W

Cedar Hill Cemetery in Navassa, NC was once an old plantation cemetery that had continued use into the 1960s and was the original site of Reaves Chapel. Buried here are people who were enslaved, formerly enslaved, and descendants of enslaved people, representing a direct connection to today’s Gullah Geechee community. The site contains about 90 graves, only 10 of which are marked. Despite only 10 marked graves remaining, Cedar Hill Cemetery is still one of the more visible Gullah Geechee burial sites. 

Preserving Gullah Geechee cemeteries and burial plots along the Cape Fear River, some dating back as far as the 1700s, presents many challenges. At one point, graves may have had wooden markers which eventually decomposed. Some graves are only marked with shells or pieces of glass. The use of these types of materials is reflective of the socioeconomic situation of the people buried there. 

In addition to visiting Cedar Hill Cemetery, it is possible to view some of the Gullah Geechee burial sites online. Mayor Willis and John Hobgood, a specialist with Brunswick County’s Geographic Information System (GIS) Department, have recorded all discovered burial sites on Brunswick County’s interactive Cemetery Map

Poplar Grove Plantation 

10200 US-17, Wilmington, NC 28411

Photo: The Beehive Design Co / Shutterstock

Poplar Grove in Wilmington, NC, is one of the few sites of its kind that have begun to do the work of acknowledging its violent history. While it’s a remnant of a plantation, the organization has spent a lot of time and research to respectfully share the stories of enslaved people who lived there that have been untold for decades.

Part of these efforts include restructuring exhibits and tour texts with information about the history of Poplar Grove and the important role of the Gullah Geechee people in the area. Poplar Grove also no longer serves as a venue for weddings out of respect for the Gullah Geechee and other enslaved people whose labor and lives were stolen there.  

Future Sites 

The past three years have been a turning point for preservation and sharing of Gullah Geechee heritage in Southeastern North Carolina, but there is still a long way to go. Many Gullah Geechee sites do not include physical structures—buildings or any other sort of physical marker—nor have they been protected. 

Future projects in the works, in different planning stages, include the Gullah Geechee Heritage Trail, a greenway and blueway spanning Brunswick County, the Cedar Hill African American Park, The Moze Heritage Center, and the Eagles Island Nature Park


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