Hidden History: Preserving, celebrating Gullah-Geechee culture

(WSAV) – On about three acres of land, in the rural town of Riceboro, Ga., sits a gathering place called Geechee Kunda.

“We are a museum. We’re a cultural center. We’re a research center. We’re an art gallery. We are like the old praise house; this is where everybody comes to get rejuvenated,” said Dr. Jamal Touré, the resident scholar at Geechee Kunda.

Geechee refers to the African-based culture that has survived along coastal Georgia for more than 250 years. Kunda is a Sarakolé word that means “compound” or “house of hope.”

Considered the epicenter of Gullah Geechee history and culture, Geechee Kunda is often the site of festivals and tours, hosting visitors from near and far.

“This is a place of homage right here. Of respect,” Touré said.

Geechee Kunda was founded by the late Jim Bacote and his wife, Pat, nearly 20 years ago. It is a respite for those thirsting for knowledge and a feel of community. The Bacote home is the central part of this living history museum. Every corner, nook, and cranny is covered with artifacts and artwork that connects visitors to their roots.

“Jim was expansive in his views with regards to the world and connecting people,” Touré said. “Didn’t matter where you’re from. Jim felt you were family.”

Located on a former rice plantation, Geechee Kunda is now a multi-building facility dedicated to telling the story of their ancestors.

“What a lot of people do not realize, where we are to now, where Geechee Kunda is, his grandparents actually lived on this property. So he was coming back home,” Gregory Grant said of Bacote.

Grant is the curator of Geechee Kunda. He said Bacote was recreating elements from his own family history, which is tied to the larger history of us all. But just as preservation was a big part of Bacote’s plan, so was expansion.

“This particular structure started off as a pole barn, of which all you had were the poles and a top. It was open, and as money became available, we first paved the floors then we started enclosing,” Grant said.

The pole barn is now a library and research center. Outside a mural dedicate to the Bacotes and their legacy. A thatched roof African round house serves as a gift shop. There’s a 19th Century sugar cane mill, an outdoor fire pit, an ecolodge, and the bell Bacote used to ring at the start of every gathering.

“Before we would start our programs or anything at Geechee Kunda, Jim would go ring the bell,” Touré said. “And he was letting us know, we’re about to get started right now. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful homage. And now even when I came here today, I look at the bell and I think about Jim and I say, ‘Before I leave, I gotta ring that bell.’”

Touré and Grant have vowed to continue to carry out Bacote’s vision. They’re currently working on restoring a 1930’s wooden praise house – and turning it into a wedding chapel – so that couples and families, generations from now, can pass on the stories of their ancestors and continue to celebrate the legacy of Geechee Kunda.