Sandy Ground, Staten Island (History)

Sandy Ground is a community within the neighborhood of Rossville in the New York City borough Staten Island, New York, located to the west of Prince’s Bay, on the island’s South Shore. It is one of the oldest surviving communities in the United States that was founded by free African Americans prior to the American Civil War, with the first documented land purchase by an African American in the area dating to 1828, just months after the abolition of slavery in New York State. Ten families descended from the original settlers still lived in the area as of 2008, and several of the community’s historic structures are still extant, including five that have been designated as New York City landmarks, including a church, a cemetery, and three homes.

 

HISTORY

Early history

When slavery was abolished in New York state on July 4, 1827, a massive celebration was staged on Staten Island at the Swan Hotel on Richmond Terrace. Accounts of the time note rooms had been reserved for months in advance by abolitionists and prominent free blacks. The two-day event in West New Brighton featured speeches, picnics, pageants and fireworks to mark this milestone in the life of New York state. Eight months later, on Feb. 23, 1828, another milestone would be recorded here when Capt. John Jackson purchased land in Westfield—now Rossville. His was the first recorded purchase of land by a black man in Richmond County, and the first purchase of land in the area we know today as Sandy Ground, the oldest community established by free slaves in North America. By the 1830s, freed men and women from all over New York state, as well as from areas as far away as Maryland and Virginia, would follow Jackson’s lead, settling on Staten Island as an oasis from persecution.

After abolition in 1827, freedmen from all over the state and as far away as Maryland and Virginia settled in the area known since colonial times as Sandy Ground, in the area around what is now the intersection of Bloomingdale and Woodrow Roads in Rossville. These early settlers were already skilled in the oystering trade. Oyster harvesting was a major business on Staten Island during the 19th century and was mainly conducted on the island’s south shore. The area of Prince’s Bay was the main hub and was within walking distance from Sandy Ground. Sandy Ground also served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and is the oldest continuously settled free black community in the United States. Sandy Ground was one of several similar neighborhoods in urban centers in the Northeast where free blacks gathered to further themselves socially and economically. Other African American communities created in cities with growing job markets in the same time period include the northern slope of Boston’s Beacon Hill, Little Liberia in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Hard Scrabble in Providence, Rhode Island.

Although remnants of the original settlement still exist, most of the original houses were destroyed in the Rossville Fire of 1963. The Sandy Ground Historical Society, which preserves the history and physical surroundings of the Sandy Ground community and maintains a museum and library, was organized on February 28, 1980, and is located at 1538 Woodrow Road. In 1982, the Sandy Ground Historic Archaeological District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Little Africa

The Sandy Ground settlement was known at times as Harrisville and “Little Africa.” The community began as a farming region, but as men and women fromMaryland and Delaware migrated to the area, the economy shifted to oyster harvesting. The oyster harvesting industry was a major business here in the 19th century, and the oysters the men of Sandy Ground planted and raked in were sold in the finest restaurants in Manhattan and elsewhere. Oyster farming ended around 1916 due to water pollution in the harbor.

Underground Railroad

Sandy Ground also was a major stop along the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping from the South. It has been speculated that the aforementioned Capt. Jackson might have ferried slaves across the Kill van Kull between Staten Island and New Jersey aboard the ferry boat he owned and operated.

A group of abolitionists also called Staten Island home, many in the Livingston section, and other houses in addition to those in Sandy Ground have been identified as possible stops along the railroad.

Among these might have been the large home built for George W. Curtis at the corner of Henderson and Bard Avenues. Curtis, who wrote for and was associate editor of Putnam’s Magazine, as well as Harper’s Weekly, was an orator of national renown on many subjects, including the ending of slavery in the United States.