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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

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.