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Brunswick Trail Seeks To Preserve History

By Laura Moore, posted Apr 16, 2021
Alfonso Beatty, with the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation, stands outside of Reaves Chapel in Navassa. The site is one of several culturally significant ones near a proposed Gullah Geechee Heritage Trail.
The area running from Southport to Navassa offers a host of historical and environmental gems that area leaders want the public to be able to access easily, gain from educationally and enjoy physically. A proposed trail to commemorate the legacy of the Gullah Geechee people in Brunswick County is part of a larger effort to bring more cultural and recreational opportunities to visitors and residents alike.
 
Government officials and community organizers are working closely with the Brunswick County NAACP, the principal sponsor of the trail proposal, to establish a greenway/ blueway within the Congressionally designated African American Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The corridor stretches roughly from Jacksonville, Florida, to Jacksonville, North Carolina, and includes Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.
 
The area of consideration extends from Navassa to Southport for 30 miles. Brunswick County wants to take advantage of this opportunity to establish a greenway along N.C. 133 to Southport and a blueway that would run parallel along the Cape Fear River and its tributaries.
 
The chairman of the N.C. Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail project and chairman of the Brunswick NAACP’s environmental and climate justice committee, Brayton Willis, explains that the trail will help in “documenting and preserving history while promoting healthy living, walking, biking, learning and enjoying our great outdoors.”
 
The trail will connect important African American heritage sites along the corridor including the Navassa Heritage Trail, Reaves Chapel (one of the oldest African American structures in the region), several proposed parks and historic rice plantation sites. This encompasses what Barnes Sutton, director of planning and development for the town of Navassa, calls, “the power of cultural infrastructure,” providing the basis for cultural heritage-tourism economic opportunities.
 
“In Navassa alone, there were six or seven plantations operating at any given time. After the Civil War, the freed people stayed and worked at the fertilizer company, Navassa Guano, who offered them employment,” Sutton said. “Those freed people bought back the plantation land and started what is Navassa now.”
 
Stakeholders see this project as an opportunity to bring people of all ages, races and ethnicities together in a way that improves the quality of life and strengthens Brunswick County.
 
“A big part of it is for people to understand how this area became what it is today. We no longer have to depend on anecdotal history. There are those reminders, and it is important that we remember the history and how things got to where they are today. We can reflect upon the trajectory of those who came before us and led us to have what we have now,” Sutton said.
 
Brunswick County is the fastest- growing county in the state and fourth fastest-growing in the country. Project leaders hope this trail will help preserve county resources.
 
“Because of the rapid construction, if we do not set aside some land now, it may be lost forever as growth and development comes into our area,” Willis said.
 
The goal is to partner with the National Park Service to brings these ideas to fruition.
 
“Our vision of this greenway/ blueway includes existing and proposed riverfront walkways and kayak launches, parks, bicycle/pedestrian multi-use paths, all connecting and linking the natural, historic, cultural, and recreational resources of our area,” Brunswick County NAACP leaders wrote in a letter to the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. “This project embraces sustainable recreation, commuting, and tourism opportunities for residents and visitors of Brunswick County while providing safe multi-use paths to destinations and activities. In our rapidly growing area, this unique opportunity will preserve, protect, and celebrate the Gullah Geechee Culture for future generations.”
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