The Road to Writing

Gracie Lewis Chandler was born on one of Georgia’s Sea Islands—Sapelo. Growing up in nearby Brunswick, she excelled in history and language arts. This academic aptitude was put to the test when, in the 1980s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources commissioned the genealogy of forty-four African American families from Sapelo.

That study revealed that c.1774, Bilali Muhammad, a young student in Futa Jallon, was captured in tribal warfare and exported as a slave to the Bahamas. Years later, around 1803, he was purchased by Randolph Spalding and brought to Sapelo Plantation. He soon became its overseer, answering only to Spalding. The genealogical study disclosed that Bilali was Chandler’s seventh-generation grandfather, the patriarch of many Sapelo families. A practicing Muslim, he’d written a small leather-bound prayer book in Arabic. Now housed in the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Books & Manuscript Library, it is referred to as the Bilali Muhammad Document. The existence of this book and the remarkable ancestor that wrote it, inspired Chandler to begin a novel based on her rich island heritage.

But her first efforts, filled with Southern stereotypes, fell flat. Extremely discouraged, she abandoned the project. However, the story of her Gullah Geechee culture—traditions rooted in African food, music, and dance, begged to be told.

Eventually she gave in, seeking books on how to write. The more she read, the more she realized that structuring a novel was not as simple as good grades in history and language arts. So she dug deeper—taking an occasional college class, subscribing to correspondence schools and Internet courses such as Ed2Go. Ten years passed before she felt confident enough to write again.  

However, there was still a long road of writing fits-and-starts, hours of writer’s workshops, and mountains of research. Ten more years passed before her book became a reality. She self-published in 2015 and Free to Be was immediately applauded by most who read it. In 2016 Chandler received the Florida Book Awards Silver Medal—an award that recognizes, honors, and celebrates the best work of Florida writers each year. The journey had been worth it.

Her professional endeavors and devotion to her community provided many opportunities for creative expression. She has worked diligently for SICARS, Inc., (Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society), a grassroots organization that supports the vanishing legacy of the Gullah Geechee people. She also serves on the Hog Hammock Public Library Board. A retired teacher and school/library media specialist, Chandler is a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Tallahassee, Florida. She received a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado. After residing in Miami, Florida for many years, she relocated to Jacksonville, Florida where she lives with husband, Tommy Chandler.