Strands of neon plastic ribbon threaded haphazardly in the pine forest just a couple hundred yards off the main road into Navassa, in Brunswick County, North Carolina, are the only sign that you’ve entered the now abandoned and overgrown resting place of some 50 Gullah Geechee people.
What remains of Cedar Hill Cemetery are body-length depressions in a thick mat of pine straw and a few leaning tombstones from the 1800s. While some tombstones were stolen from the woods in the past 10 years, most of the graves were always unmarked, or marked only by shells and broken glass, as families weren’t able to afford tombstones.
A drive through Brunswick County is a jarring mashup: one moment pine forests, the next torn-up lots with mounds of logs and bedraggled roots, and single-wide trailers across from huge developments of new pastel-colored homes. It’s a landscape of constant construction—Brunswick is the fastest growing county in the state, with a 32 percent growth rate last decade. The unchecked coastal development never considered the cultural preservation of the local Black population like the Gullah Geechee.
The Gullah Geechee are descendents of enslaved people from west Africa who were brought to plantations along the coast, from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. They maintained their own distinct culture and language, and carved farmland from nearly impassable swamps on the Southeastern coast. Their acumen with rice cultivation earned North and South Carolina the moniker “the Gold Coast.”
While there are many monuments to those who benefited from their stolen labor, it is much harder to visit or even find structural remnants of Gullah Geechee history in Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
The U.S. Congress designated a cultural heritage corridor in this region of North Carolina and other southern states in 2006. There have also been major advances in state-level preservation efforts through the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the African American Heritage Commission in the past 40 years.
But what sites remain are often unmarked and under constant threat from encroaching developments, harsh coastal weather, and decay. The effort to preserve what’s left here is still led by a handful Brunswick County locals, guided by passion and instinct to connect and preserve Gullah Geechee heritage.
“Imagine having to ask permission to walk across a gated community or golf course to get access to where your ancestral burial ground is, and having to navigate what that means physically and what that means spiritually, emotionally, and culturally,” said Michelle Lanier, director of North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties at the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
It’s a reality descendants of the Gullah Geechee—including Lanier—are all too familiar with.
Two grassroots initiatives to preserve Gullah Geechee cultural landscapes and traditions in Brunswick are the North Carolina Gullah Geechee Greenway Blueway Heritage Trail and the Rice Festival.
Brayton Willis, a Cape Fear newcomer from Boise, Idaho and a retired senior project manager and strategic planner for the Army Corps of Engineers, is behind the trail effort. Willis is white, but spent three years working on the project as the secretary of Brunswick NAACP’s environmental and climate justice committee.
Willis was curious about how the federal government had included Brunswick’s portion of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor in its environmental considerations for federal projects. He found that it was not often mentioned at all—a sign, Willis said, of the general lack of recognition of Gullah Geechee culture and heritage in the region.
“I believe that preserving traditions is critical to understanding who we are as a people,” Willis said. “It was almost unimaginable, the hardships that the Gullah Geechee went through. I wanted to bring this story forward and celebrate it in a way that people who are coming to Brunswick County could have a clearer understanding of what the Gullah Geechee meant to this area.”
While not a trained curator or a preservationist, Willis is a civil engineer—which is perhaps why, to him, it was obvious that the best tribute to Gullah Geechee would be an extensive public land project. He envisioned a combination of waterways and trails stretching more than 20 miles from Navassa to Southport that would provide education through recreation, guiding visitors as they traveled through.
Since starting the project, Willis has applied for grants, the county, and private fundraising to support the trail. Willis has received resolutions of support from Brunswick County, the town of Leland, and the National Park Service. And this February NCDOT awarded the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization a $118,000 feasibility study grant for the trail.
However, some local Black leaders, like Carl Parker, president of the Brunswick NAACP and a Gullah descendant, are worried that the trail could shift the focus away from the needs of the contemporary Gullah Geechee community. Parker initially partnered with Willis on the trail but left the project in 2022 over his concerns.
Parker says he is more interested in fostering dignity through improved quality of life and housing infrastructure. Even the trail’s promise of more job opportunities in the future such as bike repair shops and tourist venues did not quell his fears that his community would be passed over.
But none of these successes or failures has entirely answered the question of what should be done with the remaining physical sites of Gullah Geechee heritage.
The area already contains some small greenways, concentrated in the more privileged communities of Leland, Belville, and Southport. And if you know where to look, there are many scattered, largely unmaintained Gullah Geechee heritage sites like Cedar Hill Cemetery.
There’s also Reaves Chapel in Navassa, one of the oldest African American buildings in southeastern North Carolina. In March 2019, the Coastal Land Trust bought the church, built in the mid-to-late 1800s by formerly enslaved people, and is now in the process of preserving it.
That chapel is part of what helped inspire George Beatty. After doing some research into his family history, Beatty found a personal connection to the Gullah Geechee. He grew up in Navassa during the Jim Crow era, attended one of Booker T. Washington’s Rosenwald schools, and graduated college with a degree in electrical engineering. He realized then he would have to leave Brunswick County to build his career. He went on to serve as the director of the Office of Budgeting and Institutional Studies and acting vice chancellor for administration and finance at the University of Massachusetts.
“I was unhireable in the 1960s as a Black person, so I left,” said Beatty. “When I retired, I decided to return and had no idea what I wanted to do.”
He soon became involved with preserving his heritage. Beatty is the chair of the North Carolina Rice Festival, held in March, which honors the agricultural expertise and culture of the Gullah Geechee.
After doing some research into his family history, Beatty found a personal connection to the Gullah Geechee. He soon became involved with preserving his heritage. Beatty is the chair of the North Carolina Rice Festival, held in March, which honors the agricultural expertise and culture of the Gullah Geechee.
The Rice Festival is a weekend event, largely volunteer run by descendents of the people it celebrates, including community activists and organizers, historians, and artisans. Its mission is “education through celebration.” This year’s festival was held at a state historic site, the Confederate Fort Anderson/Brunswick Town.
It’s just one piece of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’s ongoing programmatic efforts to include the Gullah Geechee voice and publicly share their connection to already established NC historical sites.
“We’ve hosted family reunions at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson and family tours where people can think about and reflect on the antebellum experience of ancestors who were enslaved,” Lanier says.
For Lanier, that’s a crucial piece of connection for descendents.
She recalls taking a boat to Daufuskie Island in South Carolina as a 9-year-old, with her mother. They ate Frogmore stew—a low-country boil—and elders in the community speak about how important it was to hold onto the culture with pride, including the language traditions and cultural landscapes like burial grounds.
“There was something really impactful about that day for me, the combination of the laughter and the gathering—the power of the place, of the island,” said Lanier. “Even as a child, I felt I was experiencing something significant, and I needed to pay attention. It sparked a fire in me.”
Emily Jaeger is a freelance reporter based in Wilmington. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Cardinal and Pine, and JTA, among others.