THE LAST TIME that I spoke with artist and historian Jim Bacote, it was over a meal of fried whiting, fried sweet potatoes and collard greens at his sprawling Liberty County house and museum, Geechee Kunda.
“You know you don’t have to wait until you’re on business to come down here to eat,” he told me, piling a few hush puppies on my plate as well. “Anytime you’re in the area, just give a holler.”
As I listen to his recorded words now three years later, I still can hear the ever-present smile in his voice. Bacote, also a businessman and Civil Rights activist, had a way of putting all who met him at ease.
This giant of Gullah-Geechee culture died last month. His main legacy, Geechee Kunda, the amazing cultural education center filled in every nook and cranny with African artifacts in Riceboro, will live on through his friends and family.
“He promoted this area as the epicenter for African culture in the Americas,” says Jamal Toure, the historian and storyteller who befriended Bacote and was present at Geechee Kunda’s creation in 1999.
“It was not a job for him,” says Toure, who remains an integral part of Geechee Kunda. “That’s why he had such a jubilant personality. He enjoyed what he was doing and understood the importance of what he was doing.”
Quite simply, what Bacote was doing was healing the world – one bus load of students, one mobile home of curious Midwesterners, one tour bus of African-American pilgrims, one family reunion, one lost Floridian at a time.
“I’m trying to make a positive difference in humanity,” he told me, the sound of fish frying in the background. “Forget the differences. At the end of the day, we’re all still people, the same people.”
That last time that we spoke, Bacote showed me African musical instruments, slave shackles, a sugar cane operation and a 1930’s wooden “praise house” that he saved from demolition and moved to Geechee Kunda, a friendly and leafy oasis just off Interstate 95.
I was there in 2015 recording a radio documentary on lazy and historic US 17, the old coastal highway. Well, the radio documentary never materialized. But Bacote’s hospitality never strayed far from my mind.
That’s because on my desk, underneath photos of my dead mother and my spouse, there since 2000 or so has sat a hand-woven kasai velvet fabric from the Congo, a gift from Bacote when I first met him, when he started Geechee Kunda and I was much younger.
That fabric came from his own hand-woven fabric business, which he operated in Burkina Faso for about six years. He had successful careers in the advertising and hotel industries before that.
And as a teenager, he was part of a lawsuit that integrated Jekyll Island. His lawyer in that case was Vernon Jordan.
“I’ve always been adventuresome,” he said. “I’ve never been afraid to take cold plunges and try things that I’ve never done. And it started with the Civil Rights movement.”
He grew up on Georgia’s coast but finished high school in mid-60’s Detroit, which must have been something. That’s about when he started collecting African art. So Geechee Kunda really is the culmination of Bacote’s life-long passion.
“Even if my journey was to end today, I would be satisfied that I was part of a positive mindset that’s spreading out,” he said. “Lots of people come here and get the inoculation that’s Geechee Kunda, our vision, and they take it with them.”
Jim Bacote had lung cancer that spread to his brain. He was 69 years old.