Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center in Riceboro opened its museum and grounds to the public Saturday for the eighth annual Sugarcane Harvest and Crafts Festival. The event offered community members an opportunity to experience native art, history and culture through food, drinks, exhibits, demonstrations and performances. The Gullah-Geechee are the descendants of native Africans who were captured and brought to the Coastal Georgia as slaves.
Now in its ninth year, the center is owned by Jim and Pat Bacote, who have a passion for the preservation of Gullah-Geechee culture and have made it their mission and ministry.
“Most people don’t know the richness and importance of this culture,” Jim Bacote said.
“(Education) is the key to being the way that God wants us to be — one people.”
The center works with a number of colleges, universities and entities to provide educational programs and has about 100 different on-demand presentations offered upon request. The center also opens its doors to the public for special events several times a year in an effort to teach the history of slavery in the area.
“People leave with an appreciation of things. They get a lot of food for thought,” Bacote said.
Guests to the Kunda — or family compound — on Saturday perused displays of artifacts, sweet-grass baskets, dolls, gourds and artwork. Paintings and prints by local artist Gene Threats were on display and for sale. Pannist Nigel “Bokei” Jeffers provided steel-drum music.
Cane syrup and juice, made the traditional way, were available for sampling. Traditional Geechee cuisine also was also being served up throughout the day.
Presentations brought history to life. Historian Gregory Grant’s informative talk on history and culture was mixed with humor, superstition and herbal health tips.
He spoke about the Geechee Kunda Praise House on Retreat Road in Riceboro, which is the oldest religious facility in Liberty County.
The group plans to move the building to the Kunda and restore it to its former glory, Grant said. According to Bacote, the Kunda receives no state or federal funding, so all projects are funded through donations. Bacote estimates it will take $30,000 to get the praise house restored.
Historian Bethany J. Campbell, acting as historical figure Miss Suzzie King Taylor, dressed in Geechee attire from the 1800s and carried a walking stick as she spoke. Her presentation focused on why African people were chosen to be slaves. She told the story through a demonstration using volunteers from the audience and a slew of props, including historical artifacts.
She said African people had expertise in growing rice, sugarcane, tobacco, peanuts and cotton. They also possessed basket-weaving, wood-carving and iron-working skills that plantation owners and manufacturers sought out. Campbell said slavery wiped out various tribes and ultimately led to the depopulation of Africa.
Local resident BriAnne Dixon has attended the Sugarcane Harvest and Crafts Festival for the past few years. She came to the area three years ago to learn more about her ancestry and culture.
“I’ve learned so much real history here. We were so miseducated in the North; I didn’t like history at all. Now I’m finding out what a rich history we do have, and I am falling in love with the Lowcountry,” she said.
Dixon is the secretary for the St. Simons Island African American Coalition, a group dedicated to preserving the African history and culture of the island. It is working to restore the Harrington Graded School, which is the last remaining African-American schoolhouse on St. Simons. The group is planning a fundraising festival, which Dixon said will be June 1 at Cascoigne Park on St. Simmons.
To get involved in Geechee Kunda or to make a donation, call Bacote at 884-4440 or go to www.geecheekunda.com.