HomeLatest ThreadsGreatest ThreadsForums & GroupsMy SubscriptionsMy Posts
DU Home » Latest Threads » Forums & Groups » Main » General Discussion (Forum) » Black History: Day 10 - O...

Sun Feb 10, 2019, 09:10 AM

Black History: Day 10 - On Staten Island, one of NYC's oldest African American enclaves is preserved

On Staten Island, one of NYC's oldest African American enclaves is preserved
Remnants of Sandy Ground, a community for free blacks on the island’s south shore, can be found to this day

By Lisa M. Santoro Feb 22, 2017, 3:00pm EST

The cemetery of Rossville’s AME Zion Church is a New York City landmark Nathan Kensinger

New York City has always been a collection of diverse communities—and while many have since been paved over or transformed into new neighborhoods, in some places, visible remnants of the past remain. One such place is Staten Island’s Sandy Ground, which—along with Seneca Village, established in 1825 and located in Manhattan, and Weeksville, established in 1838 and located in present-day Crown Heights—was one of three prominent communities that free blacks called home in New York in the pre-Civil War era.

Located on the Staten Island’s south shore, Sandy Ground first appeared on records dating back to 1799, its name referring to the rich soil found throughout the area. Land ownership records show that the first African American residents purchased land in the area as early as 1828. The first documented owner, John Jackson, purchased 2.5 acres; he would later go ont to operate the Lewis Columbia, a ferry that provided service between Rossville and Manhattan—the only direct mode of transportation at that time.

Beginning in the 1840s, several African American families migrated to Sandy Ground from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay area. Although a slave state, Maryland’s population did include free blacks, many of whom were involved in the area’s oyster trade. But laws passed in the 1830s imposed harsh restrictions that limited—and in some cases prohibited—their activities. As a result, they relocated to oyster-rich Staten Island.

One of the community’s greatest assets was the Rossville AME Zion Church, founded in 1850 and later housed in a “plain wooden structure” that erected in 1854 on Crabtree Avenue. It was one of several AME Zion Churches in the city at the time—members of its various congregations included Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth—and the Rossville AME had its share of notable members, including Reverend Thomas James, famed abolitionist and civil rights leader. It also, most famously, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.
Image via Landmarks Preservation Commission

The church’s most prominent pastor, Reverend Florence Spearing Randolph, was a minister, missionary, suffragist, lecturer, organizer, and temperance worker. In addition Sunday services, the church also hosted myriad fundraising and social events, summer camp meetings, concerts, and dances. It was more than just a church; it was the hub around which the entire community was centered.

As the congregation expanded, a larger church was needed. The new AME Zion Church was built in 1897 by the local Swedish-born builder-developer Andrew Abrams at a total cost of $5,000 (including furnishings). The building was a “simple vernacular gable-roofed frame structure” with a front porch, an angled bay at the rear, and “a no longer extant Gothic Revival bell tower,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation from 2011.

Today’s building has been re-clad in faux brick siding, but has retained its original form and exterior layout. Although the original church building no longer stands (evidence suggests that it was likely demolished during the 1930s), its cemetery still exists, with more than 30 grave stones dating back to the community’s earliest days.

During its late-19th-century heyday, Sandy Ground contained more than 50 homes, some of which are now New York City landmarks. One of these, the Reverend Isaac Coleman and Rebecca Gray Coleman House, may date back to 1859. The house was purchased by Reverend Isaac Coleman, the sixth pastor of the AME Zion Church, in 1864; yet, he would only live here for one year before relocating to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (but his wife and his descendants stuck around).

Although this house originally resembled the style of an 18th century Dutch-American farmhouse, it is difficult to discern this now—it’s gotten many updates and alterations. The Baymen’s Cottages, built between 1887 and 1898, are another landmark; these nearly identical homes were built to house workers in the oyster trade during Sandy Ground’s heyday.
Reverend Isaac Coleman and Rebecca Gray Coleman House Peter Greenberg/Wikimedia Commons

Yet that commodity, which made many in Sandy Ground prosperous, would eventually lead to its decline. Several factors led to the demise of the oyster trade in Staten Island: depletion due to overfishing, heavy pollution, the effects of localized industrialization, and so on. But an outbreak of typhoid due to consuming polluted oysters led to the closure of the oyster beds in 1916. The area suffered treacherous fires in 1930 and 1963 that destroyed much of the property in the community, leading to a downturn.

And yet, despite these hardships, Sandy Ground still boasts a thriving community—many of whom are descendants from those who inhabited the area a century before. The Rossville church is still an active part of the community, providing Sunday services, community services, classes, and an annual barbecue.

In addition, the Sandy Ground Historical Museum offers a glimpse into the history of the area through guided tours, exhibits, activities, and lectures. On display are artifacts from the early history of the area, including art, quilts, letters, photographs, and rare books. Operated by the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the museum’s most popular event is its annual festival which brings together residents, visitors and descendants of Sandy Ground to celebrate black history and culture.

Given the amount of destruction and construction that has taken place on Staten Island’s south shore, it’s truly lucky that Sandy Ground still exists today. Through concerted preservation efforts and continued involvement from the community, it seems likely that Sandy Ground’s lasting legacy will continue to endure for generations to come.

Joseph Mitchell wrote an amazing piece about this community in 1956 called 'Mr Hunter's Grave" in the New Yorker in 1956. I am reading a book called 'The Bottom of the Harbor' where its included. When I'm done sometime this week, I'd be glad to send it to anyone who would like to read and pass it on to someone else.

First four paragraphs:

hen things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there. I go to the cemetery of the Woodrow Methodist Church on Woodrow Road in the Woodrow community, or to the cemetery of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on the Arthur Kill Road in the Rossville community, or to one on the Arthur Kill Road on the outskirts of Rossville that isn’t used any longer and is known as the old Rossville burying ground. The South Shore is the most rural part of the island, and all of these cemeteries are bordered on at least two sides by woods. Scrub trees grow on some of the graves, and weeds and wild flowers grow on many of them. Here and there, in order to see the design on a gravestone, it is necessary to pull aside a tangle of vines. The older gravestones are made of slate, brownstone, and marble, and the designs on them—death’s-heads, angels, hourglasses, hands pointing upward, recumbent lambs, anchors, lilies, weeping willows, and roses on broken stems—are beautifully carved. The names on the gravestones are mainly Dutch, such as Winant, Housman, Woglom, Decker, and Van Name, or Huguenot, such as Dissosway, Seguine, De Hart, Manee, and Sharrott, or English, such as Ross, Drake, Bush, Cole, and Clay. All of the old South Shore farming and oyster-planting families are represented, and members of half a dozen generations of some families lie side by side. In St. Luke’s cemetery there is a huge old apple tree that drops a sprinkling of small, wormy, lopsided apples on the graves beneath it every September, and in the Woodrow Methodist cemetery there is a patch of wild strawberries. Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk. Sometimes I walk along the Arthur Kill, the tidal creek that separates Staten Island from New Jersey; to old-time Staten Islanders, this is “the inside shore.” Sometimes I go over on the ocean side, and walk along Raritan Bay; this is “the outside shore.” The interior of the South Shore is crisscrossed with back roads, and sometimes I walk along one of them, leaving it now and then to explore an old field or a swamp or a stretch of woods or a clay pit or an abandoned farmhouse.

The back road that I know best is Bloomingdale Road. It is an old oyster-shell road that has been thinly paved with asphalt; the asphalt is cracked and pocked and rutted. It starts at the Arthur Kill, just below Rossville, runs inland for two and a half miles, gently uphill most of the way, and ends at Amboy Road in the Pleasant Plains community. In times past, it was lined with small farms that grew vegetables, berries, and fruit for Washington Market. During the depression, some of the farmers got discouraged and quit. Then, during the war, acid fumes from the stacks of smelting plants on the New Jersey side of the kill began to drift across and ruin crops, and others got discouraged and quit. Only three farms are left, and one of these is a goat farm. Many of the old fields have been taken over by sassafras, gray birch, blackjack oak, sumac, and other wasteland trees, and by reed grass, blue-bent grass, and poison ivy. In several fields, in the midst of this growth, are old woodpecker-ringed apple and pear trees, the remnants of orchards. I have great admiration for one of these trees, a pear of some old-fashioned variety whose name none of the remaining farmers can remember, and every time I go up Bloomingdale Road I jump a ditch and pick my way through a thicket of poison ivy and visit it. Its trunk is hollow and its bark is matted with lichens and it has only three live limbs, but in favorable years it still brings forth a few pears

In the space of less than a quarter of a mile, midway in its length, Bloomingdale Road is joined at right angles by three other back roads—Woodrow Road, Clay Pit Road, and Sharrott’s Road. Around the junctions of these roads, and on lanes leading off them, is a community that was something of a mystery to me until quite recently. It is a Negro community, and it consists of forty or fifty Southern-looking frame dwellings and a frame church. The church is painted white, and it has purple, green, and amber windowpanes. A sign over the door says, “AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL ZION.” On one side of the church steps is a mock-orange bush, and on the other side is a Southern dooryard plant called Spanish bayonet, a kind of yucca. Five cedar trees grow in the churchyard. The majority of the dwellings appear to be between fifty and a hundred years old. Some are long and narrow, with a chimney at each end and a low porch across the front, and some are big and rambling, with wings and ells and lean-tos and front porches and side porches. Good pine lumber and good plain carpentry went into them, and it is obvious that attempts have been made to keep them up. Nevertheless, all but a few are beginning to look dilapidated. Some of the roofs sag, and banisters are missing on some of the porches, and a good many rotted-out clapboards have been replaced with new boards that don’t match, or with strips of tin. The odd thing about the community is it usually has an empty look, as if everybody had locked up and gone off somewhere. In the summer, I have occasionally seen an old man or an old woman sitting on a porch, and I have occasionally seen children playing in a back yard, but I have seldom seen any young or middle-aged men or women around, and I have often walked through the main part of the community, the part that is on Bloomingdale Road, without seeing a single soul.

For years, I kept intending to find out something about this community, and one afternoon several weeks ago, in St. Luke’s cemetery in Rossville, an opportunity to do so presented itself.

I had been in the cemetery a couple of hours and was getting ready to leave when a weed caught my eye. It was a stringy weed, about a foot high, and it had small, lanceolate leaves and tiny white flowers and tiny seed pods, and it was growing on the grave of Rachel Dissosway, who died on April 7, 1802, “in the 27th Yr of her Age.” I consulted my wild-flower book, and came to the conclusion that it was either peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) or shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), and squatted down to take a closer look at it. “One of the characteristics of peppergrass,” the wild-flower book said, “is that its seed pods are as hot as pepper when chewed.” I deliberated on this for a minute or two, and then curiosity got the better of me and I stripped off some of the seed pods and started to put them in my mouth, and at just that moment I heard footsteps on the cemetery path and looked up and saw a man approaching, a middle-aged man in a black suit and a clerical collar He came over to the grave and looked down at me.

“What in the world are you doing?” he asked.

I tossed the seed pods on the grave and got to my feet. “I’m studying wild flowers, I guess you might call it,” I said. I introduced myself, and we shook hands, and he said that he was the rector of St. Luke’s and that his name was Raymond E. Brock.


1 replies, 231 views

Reply to this thread

Back to top Alert abuse

Always highlight: 10 newest replies | Replies posted after I mark a forum
Replies to this discussion thread
Arrow 1 replies Author Time Post
Reply Black History: Day 10 - On Staten Island, one of NYC's oldest African American enclaves is preserved (Original post)
marble falls Sunday OP
backtoblue Sunday #1

Response to marble falls (Original post)

Sun Feb 10, 2019, 10:31 AM

1. Kick and bookmarked nt

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink

Reply to this thread