A local historian is set to release a new narrative book about the rich history surrounding Sapelo Island on Georgia’s coast.
“Sapelo: People and Place on a Georgia Sea Island,” written by Buddy Sullivan and featuring photographs by Benjamin Galland, will be available March 1.
The 352-page, full-color book is the product of three years worth of work, and delves into the ecological, archaeological and cultural past of Sapelo Island, Sullivan said.
“I’ve always been interested in Sapelo,” said Sullivan, who worked for 21 years as the manager of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
“I finally reached a point where I realized there was no single book out there on the market that covered the entire history of Sapelo, with a mixture of ecology, culture, history and African-American life,” he said.
Sullivan, a former newspaper reporter and local historian, said he is particularly proud of his book’s focus on African-Americans who called Sapelo Island home for generations.
“So many of the books about Coastal Georgia tend to focus on the history of the islands, but mine really brings into context the history of African-American communities on Sapelo. When most people think of Sapelo, they think of R.J. Reynolds (tobacco titan and former owner of Sapelo), and the other famo’s people who came there. Sometimes we tend to lose sight that at one time, there was a large, active, vibrant black community on the island.”
Sullivan wrote more than 100,000 words for the book, but eventually edited it down to about 90,000.
“I had to work really hard to hold myself to that limit, because there was a lot more I could write and say,” he said.
Throughout the whole book, a common theme threads the historical details together, Sullivan said.
“The thematic aspect is the great sense of permanence and place,” he said. “That’s the underlying theme of the whole book. The people of Sapelo, whether black or white, have always used and looked at the island through a sense of permanence. That’s one thing that stuck out to me: the place and preservation.”
Of course, Sullivan’s vivid and thorough descriptions are only half the equation. Scores of photographs by Sullivan’s book partner, Galland, punctuate the book.
“The visual aspects of this book are incredible, thanks to Ben (Galland),” Sullivan said. “He has a true touch, and a sense for imagery. He’s such a talented photographer.”
Galland, a St. Simons Island native who has done photography for other similar books, said he spent 18 months visiting Sapelo Island and capturing its sweeping views.
“I had to really formulate a plan, because Sapelo is so remote and it’s only accessible by boat,” Galland said. “I’d often spend three or four days at a time living in a house on the island. I was relying on an old truck that may or may not work to get around.”
The experience was immersive, Galland said, and allowed him to focus on the natural beauty of the island.
Of the hundreds of images captured by Galland, his favorite was taken on a cold night near the Sapelo Island Lighthouse.
“I’d say one of my favorites is a night shot from near the water looking at the lighthouse,” he said. “What I like about it is the story that goes behind it. It’s a long exposure, so there are a lot of stars. It was a beautiful, cold, crisp night.”
It’s not just the photos that make the book appealing, Sullivan said. It’s also the stories of individuals he collected in his research.
“I’ve gone through great pains to cover the unique history of black people on Sapelo, from slavery to freedom. All of it has been laid out in a narrative form. That’s a real unique part of the history,” Sullivan said.
The books’ official unveiling will be at 6 p.m. March 23 at the Coastal Georgia Historical Society’s A.W. Jones Heritage Center. Sullivan will present a lecture on the book and sign copies. The event is free to the public, but Sullivan advises making a reservation by calling 638-4666.
“Sapelo: People and Place on a Georgia Sea Island,” is printed by the University of Georgia Press and will be available in bookstores and online for $34.95.