Editor’s note: This is the eighth part of a series examining what life was like for African-Americans in Liberty County before and during the civil rights movement. This one contains news of the death of a man who has worked to preserve the culture of Africans brought to this area as slaves.
Riceboro’s Gullah Geechee civil rights activist and pan-Africanist, Jim Bacote, passed away quietly in his home Sunday. In the Islamic tradition, his body was washed, wrapped, and laid to rest two days later at a simple life celebration of prayer and burial at Greenwood Cemetery in Brunswick.
“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” This African proverb captures Bacote’s life. He had returned to his ancestral home here in Liberty County in 2000 to preserve African history and culture that developed along the Sea Islands. The day before the funeral Pat Bacote, Jim’s wife and co-creator of Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center and Museum south of Riceboro, was at the compound, surrounded by women. They were holding one another up with stories, laughter and wisdom.
“Amazingly, innovative!” Pat Bacote said when asked to describe her husband. “We have lived and traveled to many places including Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, and Burkina Faso in west Africa where we owned and operated a textile factory and we have traveled extensively around the globe. Jim and I, we were born in coastal Georgia in Brunswick. And we made a conscious decision to return here to the land of our ancestors in Liberty County — to achieve a vision of sharing African history and culture and to build bridges with diverse communities from all around the world so that healing and understanding can begin to take place.”
They built Geechee Kunda in 2000.
“Nobody else was doing that in the United States, especially as it pertains to the Gullah-Geechee culture. Over time, we understood that right here in Liberty County, little old Riceboro, off I-95, our facility had developed into a tourism destination and it is truly an epicenter, a place for people to gather, see, and learn of the great history of Africans through the lens of the Gullah Geechee people...
“Jim believed that all African-descended people in America are Gullah Geechee. And the gatherings and sharing that take place here, and the honoring of all human beings, no matter one’s race, gender or faith, are what make the programs and community-building at Geechee Kunda work so well. If you can embrace the idea that Africans possess high culture like all great cultures in the world, then you are welcomed at Geechee Kunda. European visitors from various countries including England and Germany among many nations, as well as Native Americans have been inspired to join us at Geechee Kunda.”
The Gullah-Geechee people are the descendants of Africans abducted and brought to America to work on colonial plantations on the Sea Islands. They hold linkages to the past regarding culture, religion, society, family and kinship and language. I first learned of Jim Bacote and Geechee Kunda in 2006 while employed with Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Congress had just enacted legislation declaring the Southeast coastal region 30 miles inward, from North Carolina to north Floriday, a national heritage area. Then, Geechee Kunda was only one building that also served as the couple’s home, welcome center, and demonstration space. Today, the site has grown into an impressive campus of multiple buildings and cultural activities.
Dr. Amir Jamal Toure, Gullah Geechee professor of Africana Studies at Savannah State, is a member of the private non-profit organization’s board of directors. A native Gullah-Geechee and speaker from Savannah, he facilitates educational lecture-performances as Geechee Kunda’s iconic “African Spirit” to engage diverse audiences in a way that is visually stimulating and educational. “In 2000 when bri’ (brother) Jim and Sis. Pat returned, they shared their vision with me and I was blown away because there was a group in Savannah that had been talking for years about something like Geechee Kunda to preserve the culture. And here we are 18 years later with international relevance, and programming and visitors who want to know about the Gullah Geechee people and thus connections to the African continent and the diaspora. We have programs like The Gathering, Community Sugar Cane Harvest, museum exhibits, lectures led by international scholars. And all of this stemmed from Bri’ Jim’s extraordinary vision.”
This kind gesture illustrates just how much progress humanity has made since the 1960s when Jim was a boy. While improvements have been made we still have some distance to go. Born December 18, 1948 in Brunswick, to Sally and James Richardson Bacote Sr., at 15 he was vividly aware of the racial inequalities at segregated Jekyll Island State Park. The status quo was that whites owned homes and motels along the northernmost beaches of the island whereas blacks were relegated to segregated facilities in the southern parts of the island and allowed among whites only as domestic workers.
According to Tyler E. Bagwell, assistant professor of Speech Communications at College of Coastal Georgia and author of The Jekyll Island Club, “...in March 1963, Rev. Julius C. Hope, president of the NAACP Brunswick Branch, and W.W. Law, president of the NAACP Savannah Branch, visited Jekyll Island with several other people [including a young Jim Bacote] and attempted to use the segregated amenities. They were denied access to the golf course, indoor swimming pool, Peppermint Land Amusement Park, and motels. A lawsuit was filed. In June 1964 it was ruled that the state-operated facilities at Jekyll Island would be integrated.”
On Thursday July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which ended de facto segregation in America’s public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Jim Bacote and four other African American youth were, in many ways, the impetus for the integration of other facilities throughout the state.
May 8, 2018, Tuesday morning just as the sun was stretching across the morning sky to show her full glory, Pat Bacote, her family, and a large group of Geechee Kunda friends gathered around the simple casket in which Jim lay. Imam Ibrahim called everyone in attendance to collective prayer. He asked whosoever desired to grab a handful of the sandy soil and to sprinkle it over the burial. And one-by-one a diverse group of people from all walks of life, blessed Jim with the soil that perhaps he had played in as a young boy in Brunswick, Georgia.
I asked Dr. Toure about what Jim would say about that moment. He smiled and replied: Wa jine we!
Glass-Hill is a scholar, author, and public historian. She is the executive director of the Susie King Taylor Women’s Institute and Ecology Center in Midway, Georgia