This ambitious project will celebrate cultural heritage, promote sustainable recreation and encourage economic development. It began when retired civil engineer and Leland resident Brayton Willis learned about the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and our section of it.
The corridor runs from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, from the coastline to 30 miles inland. It was created by Congress to call attention to the historic and cultural contributions of the Gullah Geechee people, the descendants of Africans who were enslaved and brought to North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to work on plantations.
The idea came about during Black History Month in 2020. After speaking with Carl Parker, president of the Brunswick Branch of the NAACP, Willis concluded that the stretch of the corridor from Leland to Southport held untapped potential. He envisioned a 30-mile greenway/ blueway trail that celebrated the Gullah Geechee people, and linked the historic, cultural, natural and recreational resources along the way.
The greenway/blueway would connect existing and proposed riverfront walkways, kayak launches, parks and multi-use paths, benefitting residents and visitors alike. It would connect many of the rice plantations and other historic sites, ensuring that the contributions of the Gullah Geechee people would be recognized and preserved.
After becoming chair of the Gullah Geechee Greenway/Blueway Heritage Trail for the Brunswick Branch of the NAACP, Willis used what he learned serving on several local and regional planning and economic development committees to develop partnerships for the project, ranging from municipalities and environmental and recreational groups to cultural and tourism-related entities.
“We’re on our way,” Willis reports. “UNCW, NC State, and UNC-Chapel Hill are sending graduate students to join the team to help complete the work plan. With a strong partnership between the NAACP and the National Park Service's River, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, the next milestone ahead is to finalize their multi-year work plan agreement.”
He adds: “We’ll have our first community outreach event, and surveys of our citizens, by mid to late summer. This project has a long horizon and is a gift we want to give our children, and their children, and their children. You should know that the first grant we received was from BEMC for $1,200, and it was instrumental in giving me a pair of ‘inspiration shoes’ to envision what walking this trail would look like. It paid for our initial outreach materials and brochures that we needed to get started. Thank you.”
Current projected need for the Trail Master Plan and Demonstration Project is $450,000. Donations can be sent payable to: Brunswick County Branch #5452, NAACP, C/O Carl Parker, Presiden, 1034 Parkwood Drive NE, Leland NC 28451. Brayton Willis can be reached at email@example.com.
BEMC Community Grants
Since its inception, more than $646,000 has been given back to the community through this program.