SAPELO'S PEOPLE by William S. McFeely
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McFeely, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of President Grant (1981) and acclaim for his more recent biography of Frederick Douglass (1991), offers a slender ""meditation on race"" in this resonant study of the people of Sapelo Island. McFeely returned to this barrier island off the Georgia coast for the 125th anniversary of its First African Baptist Church, and his visit engenders a series of ruminations and the recounting of a lot of island history. The island's population consists entirely of the descendants of slaves, living in the village of Hog Hammock. Thanks to a genealogist hired by the state, Mae Ruth Green, their family lines are fully charted, enriching family lore with fact. So when McFeely goes to Behavior, the island cemetery, looking for Bilali, the Muslim slave and slave driver who was one of the island's first inhabitants, he is also looking for the great-great-great grandfather of Allen Green, a basketmaker of great skill who has become the author's friend. Using the island's geography as a Proustian prod, McFeely traces its history in quick, bold strokes, from slavery through the Civil War, with its promise of liberation, and Reconstruction, with its all-too-brief taste of self-determination. Finally, he writes movingly of the need to preserve not only the island, but the community that lives on it, of the comfort that he, a white, New York-born academic, finds among its black Southern inhabitants. One might even say of the book what McFeely says of the cemetery: ""There is...abundant evidence in the names and dates on the gravestones of the connectedness of people, of the continuity of life."" Although his intentions are avowedly modest, McFeely has crafted a beautiful, often poignant essay on this small community, a book that does credit to his subject and to its author. Highly recommended.

Pub Date: June 13th, 1994
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Norton