‘The church was in critical, bad shape:’ work underway to restore historic Reaves Chapel

Restoring Reaves Chapel: a historic African American Church in Navassa
Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 7:41 AM EST
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NAVASSA, N.C. (WECT) - Work is underway right now to restore a historic African American church in our area.

Reaves Chapel in Navassa was built in the 1860s by former slaves of the Cedar Hill Plantation and other neighboring rice plantations.

“The artisans, they pretty much built the church — the ones that they had left from the plantations around here. They were newly freed people as you can imagine,” said Al Beatty, president or the Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation.

It originally sat along the Cape Fear River, but was moved inland to its current location in the early 1900s using logs and oxen.

The church had a congregation as recently as the early 2000s until falling into disarray.

“It had always been a community symbol and it means a whole lot to the whole community,” said Beatty, who attended the church and lives right down the road from the property.

Once the chapel is completely restored, the plan is for the state to take it over as a historic site. The chapel will also serve as the northern end of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area that stretches from North Carolina all the way down to Florida.

Two organizations, Beatty’s Cedar Hill/West Bank Heritage Foundation and the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, bought the property and started major restoration work in November.

“We don’t always do historic restoration work but this particular project was incredibly important to our landscape and to the history of the area that we work in, so we were very honored to be asked to come on board and help secure the funds,” said Jesica Blake, associate director of the Coastal Land Trust. “This particular project tells a story of history that has been overlooked many times and is very very important to this area.”

The Gullah Geechee people are the descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved on coastal rice, Sea Island cotton and indigo plantations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

Reaves Chapel is essential to capturing that history, but as Beatty will tell you, the church would not have been able to hang on much longer.

“Thirty days ago — the church was in critical, bad shape,” he said. “It would not have withstood a hurricane or a strong tropical storm. And we did not get not one and this area is known for getting them. That let us know that it was on one leg pleading with us help, help, help.”

“The urgency really was, I mean, we were just very lucky there wasn’t a storm this year because I can’t guarantee it would have survived,” Blake said.

A lot of work needs to be done to restore the chapel.

Termites ate through the foundation, so the structure had to be jacked up off the ground by hand so it could be replaced.

The goal is to use as much original material as possible.

“It would have been a much cheaper job for us if we just tore down the church and just rebuilt it from scratch, but that would not capture the historical significance of the handy craft and labor that was put in,” Beatty said.

The two organizations have raised half a million dollars so far, but another $200,000 is needed to finish the entire project.

The $500,000 raised so far will cover construction on the foundation and flooring as well as the roof, but the additional funds are needed to build the things needed for it to be taken over as a historic site by the state, such as outdoor restrooms and a parking lot.

“This is an expensive project, it deserves to be expensive, it deserves to be taken care of in this way,” Blake said.

The pandemic has made fundraising efforts more complicated. The original plan was to bring potential donors to the church in 2020.

“The best way to fundraise for things that people don’t 100% understand or may never have heard of is to take them there and so all 2020 was going to be fundraising at Reaves Chapel and then we weren’t able to gather,” Blake said.

Like a true believer, Beatty keeps the faith that Reaves Chapel will last for years to come, despite having to hang for now.

You can click on this link to donate.

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