Gullah Geechee Greenway Would Connect Eastern Brunswick County's Cultural Treasures
Leland resident Brayton Willis is hoping to string together some “pearls” to create a recreational, historical and environmental treasure for eastern Brunswick County. He is working with the Brunswick County NAACP to spearhead a proposal for a Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Multi-Use Greenway/Blueway Trail that would stretch from Navassa, through Leland and Belville and Boiling Spring Lakes, to Southport.
This is a huge idea and there is a lot to unpack just in the name of the project alone. Let’s start with the Gullah Geechee. The Gullah Geechee culture is made up of African American descendants of the enslaved workers on the rice plantations that used to stretch from Pender County to Jacksonville, Florida. Heavily concentrated around the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, this unique culture known for some distinct linguistic and culinary traditions also has deep roots in our area of Brunswick County and the former rice plantations along the Cape Fear River.
In 2006, Congress designated a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor to “recognize, sustain, and celebrate the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans, known as the Gullah Geechee…” Brunswick County sits entirely inside this corridor. Willis says he hopes to capitalize on that Congressional designation to bring some help in creating a greenway/blue.
The idea of a multi-use greenway/blueway trail system is to provide walking, biking and kayaking trails, in this case connecting sites of cultural and historical importance to the Gullah-Geechee culture.
Willis said he was inspired by a planned East Coast Greenway that would run along the entire United States eastern seaboard when he ran into some folks working on the project in the Wilmington area. He also participated in the Wilmington metro planning Organization’s work to create a master plan for development in the Cape Fear Region. “They brought into my vision the need to have better pedestrian and bike facilities. It laid the groundwork in my mind,” he said.
“This idea popped into view in February of this year,” he said. “We have some great leaders in our community that have already stepped up. This is a complement for some things that are already ongoing.”
While working on the Brunswick County NAACP Environmental Justice Committee, Willis said he was struck that he didn’t ever see a mention of the federally recognized Gullah-Geechee Corridor. “The Congressional corridor has been around since ’06 but I saw no recognition of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor,” he said. “Nowhere could I find references to the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. I reached out to as many people as I could, went to Gullah-Geechee Foundation folks and didn’t get good answer. I kept digging and stumbled across Eulis Willis in Navassa. Eulis is proposing a Moze Heritage Center on an old SuperFund site.”
The proposed Moze Gullah Geechee Heritage Site, located on the Brunswick river near the intersection of N. Navassa Road and Old Mill Road, is one of the “pearls” Willis hopes to string. It would include Gullah-Geechee museum and a nature center along with walking trails, a dock and pier and a kayak launch. The project would 40 acres of vulnerable saltmarsh habitat, according to a proposal Willis has been presenting to local governments and civic organizations.
Willis also found brothers Al and George Beatty working in northern Navassa, in the Phoenix area, on a Cedar hill African American Heritage Park that would encompass a cemetery and the historic Reaves Chapel AME Church. “They (the Beatty brothers) finally got some money to do some stabilization on it,” said Willis. “The church was built by Gullah-Geechee, formerly enslaved people who worked the rice palpations in the area.”
The Town of Leland’s upcoming Sturgeon Park sits close to the Navassa-leland border near the proposed Moze Center. South of Leland, in Belville, the Brunswick Riverwalk Park is an existing “pearl” with access to the river, a nature center and walkway, recreational facilities, and the ruins of the rice plantation that used to sit where the park and the school across the street are now. Wills found while speaking to Belville Mayor Mike Allen that the town hopes to connect its walkway with the Battleship North Carolina at some point, proving yet another link to another “pearl.”
Willis said that the next part of his string is already in the works in the form of a proposed widening project along Rt. 133starting in Belville and running more than four miles south. The proposal envisions a walking/biking path along the side of the road allowing for safe exercise and travel.
“With what’s coming,” Willis said, “that leaves us 18 miles from Southport. Looking at that remaining 18 miles, that’s going to be a long term challenge. But as we build the trail we can string these pearls together. Establishing a corridor from Navassa to Southport, that’s the lowest hanging fruit to establish a trail. It’s a good place to start.”
Willis points to four existing river access points that would be included in the proposed blueway. He envisions a possible three additional points. Historic sites line the river and are even providing an environmental benefit.. “These old rice fields serve as sanctuaries for fish habitat and nurseries,” he said.
Willis’s hopes extend this project beyond Brunswick County. He said that Pender County has expressed interest in his proposal and that each of the three proposals for an additional bridge over the Cape Fear River features a bike/pedestrian path. Eventually, he said, he’d like to connect to the larger east Coast Greenway.
But first Willis needs to rally support. “Where we’re at…we have community support. All of this will be rolled up into an application to the National Park Service. This is important. They have a Rivers and Trails Program to offer help to develop bluesy and greenway trail segments. They’ve been working in North Carolina with a few communities,” Willis said. “I worked with them out west, in Idaho. I linked up with them again and told them about the concept. They are really excited to get the application. They want letters of support, where communities might offer up meeting space, something to show they are willing to put effort into developing the trails.” Wills has secured the support of Navassa, Belville and Leland and plans to speak with the leaders of Boiling Spring Lakes and Southport soon.
Willis says heinous he has his work cut out for him. “We need to start looking at grant monies, looking at philanthropic groups, finding help to fund things. We need a website and to start a marketing campaign,” He said. "This is a big project for the Brunswick County NAACP, for any NAACP really.” He said he hopes to attract help from other organizations as the project grows.
The time is ripe for this sort of project, Willis said. “Newcomers, and even long time residents, often don’t have a clue of the historic/cultural values our area possesses. This is a great opportunity to share these,” he said. And the pandemic has brought outdoor activities into more people’s lives than ever before. “A lot of more people are going out on the river with kayaks, and just try buying a bicycle today,” he said. “Here is an opportunity to take advantage of people seeking to get outdoors and enjoy the environment.”
“But more than that, this is not about us right now,” Willis said. “This is about providing something for our children and our grandchildren. They will be the beneficiaries of setting aside this land.”