An Island in the Mist : With so much of African American history lost, the story of an ex-slave community takes on special meaning as a link with a collective past. : SAPELO'S PEOPLE: A Long Walk Into Freedom, By William S. McFeely (W.W. Norton: $18.95; 200 pp.)

Roger Wilkins, a former official for the U.S. State and Justice departments, is a Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University

Sapelo is an island off the Georgia coast, inhabited by descendants of slaves brought there almost two centuries ago. Near the end of "Sapelo's People," a self-styled "meditation on race," William S. McFeely, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ulysses S. Grant, writes that he wants to restore their own history to the black people of Sapelo Island. Only one of those islanders, for whom McFeely's gift was intended, can truly judge how successful he has been. But I--merely an outsider, but one whose history this could have been--am deeply grateful for McFeely's magnificent effort of thought, empathy, scholarship and imagination.

McFeely's story of the blacks on Sapelo is a searing, metaphorical X-ray of a people battling to find space where they can become themselves rather than succumb to the weight of a hostile majority determined to master an island, a region, a continental nation. Using the stories the Sapelo people told him, the advice of a professional genealogist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the tools of the historian's trade, McFeely delineates a spare trail from slaves like Bilali--the great-great-great grandfather of one of his sources on Sapelo--to the poor and decent lives led by the few remaining inhabitants.

For most blacks the past is not prologue. It is a fog created by whites who, while romanticizing their own stories, expended much effort attempting to destroy or demean the history of blacks. Had McFeely followed the duplicitous historical traditions that prevailed up to the middle of this century, not only would Bilali have been lost in the mist, but the long road from him to James Banks Jr., a Sapelo native now studying at Georgia Southern University, would have been profoundly distorted. Losses inflicted by bad or incomplete history are incalculable.

Like many other blacks, I feel this on a personal level. On American soil, I feel whole, but when I travel to Africa, I feel incomplete, overwhelmed by the presence of a part of me that has been lost. Luckily, that began to change on a visit to Ghana earlier this year. In a guest house in Accra, I was stunned while looking at a painting of an African scene to see a face that bore a striking resemblance to my father's face. On another day, I encountered a young Ghanaian woman who looked very much like my aunt and my older daughter.

A few days later, I visited the Cape Coast Castle, a fort on Ghana's Guinea Coast that for two centuries served as both a warehouse for slaves consigned to the Western hemisphere and as their point of embarkation: the place where they lost their native soil, the communities that had shaped and nurtured them and more often than not, their entire families. Having just seen evidence of African stock that carried down to my family in the United States, I knew that centuries ago at least one ancestor of mine had suffered in her own filth, crammed with scores of others in the dark dungeon where I was standing as she waited for a slave ship and a future filled with unknowable horrors.

In a strange way the power of the hideous memory was healing. It gave me back a tangible sense of an important part of my history. While in a different way, McFeely's sketch of the specific histories of Sapelo's people brought me a similar sense of restoration.

Bilali, the patriarch of the Sapelo Island slaves, was purchased either in the West Indies or in the Charleston slave market in about 1802 by Thomas Spalding, the patriarch of the Sapelo Island slave owners. Ultimately Spalding, a highly successful planter--with enormous help from his slave driver/plantation manager, Bilali--was able to will 1,000 slaves to his children. Ultimately, Bilali, a devoutly religious Muslim with some formal education, was able to pass on the spirituality he brought from Africa by writing a book for his descendants about his faith and hereditary slavery.

For those of us who need to establish a human link to Africa but cannot reach back to a specific ancestral moment, Bilali, born in what is now Guinea in about 1760 and abducted and shipped from the Guinea Coast about two centuries ago, is a good stand-in. In describing the plan the Spaldings developed to control and train their newly purchased work force, McFeely suggests what Bilali experienced in the transition from free-standing human to slave:

"The terror of those enslaved in Africa, forced into the stinking holds of slave ships . . . for the Middle Passage, and then driven from those ships and into the slave pens of the Charleston Market. Already separated from family and other familiar people, having seen their fellow cargo, dead and no longer of value, thrown into the sea, these were the survivors. Unable to communicate with most of the other people in the pens and shouted at in a language wholly alien, they can scarcely have imagined what would be their fate."

One thing that was in store for them was work. McFeely observes that Thomas Spalding "exacted a fierce amount of labor from the slaves." Those who imagine slavery as principally a bucolic occupation, characterized primarily by stoop labor, miss by a very wide margin the degree to which slaves laid the foundation of this country. Here is McFeely's description of the labor the slaves performed in wresting from a wilderness the broad, rich lands that provided Spalding his fortune:

"Hundreds of live oaks were sawn down, trimmed, squared and hauled by oxen to boats and sold as timber. Other trees were ringed of their bark and, when dead, felled and burned. Stumps were pulled and the woodland floor laboriously cleared of saplings, ditches were dug and salt marshes drained, to create cotton fields. Once the spring planting was up, the soil between the rows of low, bristly bushes was chopped with long-handled hoes to banish weeds and to loosen the soil baking under the intense summer sun. When it came time for harvesting, the cotton was picked into long gunny sacks dragged by stooping workers through the fields that spread over Spalding's four thousand acres."

The Civil War smashed the Spalding empire. In an effort to preserve many of their "assets," some members of the family took their slaves off the island and marched them into the interior of Georgia. But some Sapelo slaves, like others across the South, took the occasion of the war to liberate themselves. Some simply ran away. Others ran away and joined the Union Army.

Whatever their course during the war, the main sword of freedom for Sapelo's blacks was wielded by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. His great march to the sea broke everything in its path, including the shackles that bound the Spaldings' remaining slaves to their hereditary condition. As a result, as McFeely notes dryly, freedom meant becoming "war refugees." Some of the former Sapelo slaves returned to the island.

There were obviously many reasons why the Sapelo people returned, but surely one of them was Sherman's Special Field Order 15, issued in January, 1865, which set aside a stretch of territory, including Sea Islands, for the exclusive use of the newly freed blacks. Sherman acted on the advice of a black delegation, which assured him that the freed people's deepest desire was to obtain the means to achieve independence and thus true freedom. Two months later the Freedmen's legislation passed by Congress perfected and extended Sherman's idea. It gave the President the authority to assign up to 40 acres of abandoned Southern lands to "loyal refugees and freedmen."

Like so many other promising Reconstruction initiatives, this measure, which held great promise of independence, disappeared under a concerted onslaught of white power. On the national level, President Andrew Johnson nullified the lands provision of the Freedmen's legislation by exercising his pardon power in favor of the former Confederate ruling class. Locally, the Spalding family, citing Johnson's policy, sent land agents to reduce the Sapelo people to something very close to slavery. Although the blacks successfully resisted being reduced to sharecroppers, they were deprived of any land other than the little garden plots they had been allotted during slavery. While the schemes of Spalding heirs failed, successive waves of other wealthy whites took some of the best land on the island, thereby assuring that the people who remained would live perpetually in poverty.

Over time, other Reconstruction measures were also thwarted. Education in which the blacks had placed so much hope was restricted first to youngsters and then to the daylight hours. The idea of adult education, which might have empowered the blacks, shriveled and died. Politics had also once seemed promising. But violence, misuse of the law, the indifference of the North and finally the unremitting zeal of Southern whites left Georgia blacks disenfranchised again by the first decade of this century.

In their long climb out of the brutal post-Reconstruction disappointments, the people of Sapelo abide and grow. The last of the Spaldings--their plans for rebuilding their empire long dashed--have gone. The descendants of the Africans brought to the island to wring wealth out of it for their masters have become one with the island. It has become their island and they are its people. Little in their lives symbolizes this better than the First African Baptist Church, which was established in May, 1866, and which celebrated its 125th anniversary while McFeely was working there. Two of Bilali's grandsons were founders of the church which, while Christian in name, is African in spirit.

McFeely describes Bilali's latter-day descendants and their community as they arrive for the 125th Anniversary church service:

"On this first Sunday in May 1991, 125 years after angels of their better nature gathered and made a joyful noise, Sapelo's people slowly, sedately, but richly in anticipation, come together outside today's First African Baptist Church.

"Climbing down from vans and pickup trucks, the men stand at the edge of the shade in black suits; the women moving into the shelter of the large oak wear hats plastic and giddy, straw and smart. . . . From head to patent-leather toe, these people are, this day, adorned for celebration. They have come to make the Lord's day a fine party."

Sapelo's people came back from New York and Miami and Dayton to celebrate the anniversary of the church, which is also a celebration of Sapelo's families and Sapelo's community. As McFeely observes:

"Of course there had been vast change since Thomas Spalding hauled his wild Africans onto the island as slaves, these slaves who became free and, free, learned that freedom can be held captive to poverty. Freedom can be inched in on in other ways as well by outsiders meaning well or thinking ill. Sapelo's people have experienced too many other people doing for them; they want, as they always have, to do for themselves. And what seems to be immensely difficult for any but themselves to see is how well they have done."

And that, of course, is the ultimate story. These people have endured every brutality and every indignity that a mighty nation could heap on them. They have taken what little they had . . . only their bare lives at first . . . and built people and families and churches and dignity. Some have fallen by the wayside under the weight of the onslaught or just because of their own human frailties. But others have lived to fight back and to throw up offspring who have left the island and enriched the nation. A few have stayed husbanding their memories and continuing to live in the circle of simple dignity and concern they have constructed out of their years of tribulation.

And so it is that the story of black Americans is not really about O.J. Simpson or Colin Powell or Toni Morrison or Oprah Winfrey or Rodney King or gangsta rappers or even university professors or newspaper writers. We all have a part of that story, but the symbol of the great thrust of black history can be seen on Sunday mornings as the people in their worship clothes spill out of the churches they have made and greet each other after a week of ordinary work, surviving in a hostile land that still belittles, slanders and underpays them, but to which they continue to give their dignity, their persistence, their values and their strength.

Having been guided through McFeely's book by his Sapelo muses both living and dead, I am proud to be one of those whom McFeely lovingly calls "colored people in a land of careless hatred." Good history does have its uses and McFeely's gift is a splendid one.

BOOK MARK: For an excerpt from "Sapelo's People," see the Opinion section.

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