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Community races against time to restore dilapidated church

Al Beatty, Chairman of the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, holds an old nail removed from a rotting part of the timber frame of Navassa’s Reaves Chapel. The chapel was built in the mid-1800s by former slaves on the Cedar Hill Plantation and other nearby plantations. Photo: Trista Talton

NAVASSA – There were times when Al Beatty was scared to look at Reaves Chapel as he walked past.

Jesica Blake felt a wave of nausea when she saw the chapel, built in the mid-1800s, visibly shaking when its steeple was lifted from the roof a few years ago.

Many a conversation between the two began with the question, “Is it still standing?”

Remarkably, Reaves Chapel, one of the oldest African-American buildings in southeastern North Carolina, indeed still stands after falling into disrepair since a congregation last met in its walls more than 15 years ago.

Since then, the small chapel built by former slaves at Cedar Hill Plantation has withstood tropical storms and hurricanes. Termites feasted on his wooden bones.

The weight of the steeple, which contains a small but impressively heavy bell, has begun to tip the chapel to one side.

The race against time to restore the chapel before it collapses weighed heavily on Beatty, president of the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundationand Blake, North Carolina Coastal Land Trust Associate Director.

“It would never have survived another tropical storm,” Beatty said, surveying the chapel’s new floor on a recent cold February morning.

It was the first time he had entered the chapel, its floor being too rotten to contain a person safely, in over a year.

“It’s fantastic,” Beatty said, a beaming smile on his face. “It’s a great past. It’s fantastic.”

About half the million dollars it will cost to restore the building, lay out the grounds for the chapel, construct a separate building for restrooms and parking, has been raised through fundraising efforts led by the land trust , the foundation and the Wilmington Historical Foundation.

The Coastal Land Trust purchased the little over half an acre on which the chapel now sits just off Cedar Hill Road in Navassa, the Brunswick County town nestled at the confluence of the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers.

Ed Reaves, a former slave on the Cedar Hill Plantation, donated the land in 1911, around the time the chapel was moved by his congregation, whose members used logs and a team of oxen, for the move inward from the Cape Fear River cliffs.

The church eventually became affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and remained an AME church until its doors closed for good in the mid-2000s.

As a child, Beatty attended church with his family. He remembers the Easter Sunday programs when he and the other children, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, had to recite from the pulpit short speeches interspersed with scriptures.

“Everyone had a speech,” Beatty said. “Everyone.”

Beatty helped create the Cedar Hill/West Bank Foundation in 2011 in an effort to save the chapel. The foundation was officially granted nonprofit status two years later.

The first attempts to buy the chapel failed. The land trust, which had worked with Navassa as the city began a process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remediate the former Kerr-McGee Superfund site, eventually stepped in and offered to help pick up the cause to save the chapel.

“It’s a piece of American history that we’re honored to help protect,” Blake said.

After years of effort and fundraising, the Reaves Chapel in Navassa is being restored. The chapel was built by former slaves on the Cedar Hill Plantation and other nearby plantations. Donations are always accepted for the project. Photo: Trista Talton

The church is restored to how it was in 1911, when a cube-shaped addition was built to the front of the church to accommodate a choir.

Today, the chapel’s white paint is gray and chipped. Traces of water damage mark parts of the ceiling and walls.

Parts of the building’s exposed timber frame are strewn with holes eaten by termites. “Real old fashioned nails”, as Beatty calls them, still hold the frame together.

But the bones are good, testimony of the craftsmen who built the chapel more than a century ago.

Beatty said he has yet to bring new visitors to the chapel who were not immediately drawn to its charm.

“The church becomes a part of them,” he said.

Balding Brothers, a Wilmington-based company that specializes in restoring historic buildings, is overseeing the project.

Since restoration work began late last year, the church’s foundation has been stabilized by some of the original concrete blocks that have supported the church for years. New brick piles were added along the sides of the foundation.

Three stained glass windows, including a triangular-shaped window above the double-door entrance, were removed and sent for cleaning and restoration at the steep price of $50,000.

A shipping container next to the chapel, which is temporarily surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, is used as storage for items taken out of the chapel, such as pews and the bell tower bell.

Off the chapel site, in the woods that lead to the Cape Fear River cliffs, is the chapel cemetery.

About ten tombstones are in this area. More than 70 depressions in the ground signal more graves.

“We’re in the process of restoring that and getting a catalog,” of those graves, Beatty said.

The organizations are working with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office to have the chapel and its cemetery designated a State Historic Landmark, which would eventually be linked to nationally recognized places of historic significance related to the Gullah Geechee.

The Gullah Geechee are descendants of West Africans taken from their country and enslaved in the rice, indigo and cotton plantations of Sea Island on the lower Atlantic coast.

Reaves Chapel would be the northern anchor of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which encompasses 12,000 square miles of coastal area that runs along the southern Atlantic coast from St. John’s County, Florida to Onslow County .

Efforts are underway to connect the corridor to the East Coast Greenway in Brunswick County. The Greenway is a 3,000-mile walking and biking route that crosses 15 states from Maine to Florida.

The Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail project will be designed to combine outdoor activities, including walking, biking and paddling, with Gullah Geechee history and culture.

There is also a proposal in the works to build a cultural heritage center in Navassa, a place that will further educate visitors about the history and culture of the Gullah Geechee.

Blake said the goal was to get the state to take ownership of the chapel. Ultimately, Beatty said, the plan is to have the site listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Blake said, though noble, she hopes the restoration of the chapel will be complete by the end of the year.