Category Archives: Staten Island

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery

A view of A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at Sandy Ground, May 2017 (Mary French)

Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.

The A.M.E. Zion Church and Cemetery in 1874 (Beers 1874)

The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.

Location of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.

A view of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Cemetery, ca. 1980 (LPC)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.

Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the A.M.E. Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a classic New Yorker article published in 1956, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.

George H. Hunter ca. 1940, with the “Honey Wagon,” the name Sandy Grounders gave to the truck he used for cleaning cesspools (SI Advance)

Visiting the A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.

Gravestone of Dawson Landin (1826-1899), an oysterman who moved to Sandy Ground from Maryland in the mid-1800s. He owned a forty-foot sloop named the Pacific and was the “richest man in the settlement,” according to George Hunter (Mary French)

View more photos of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery.

Sources: “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” (J. Mitchell), New Yorker, Sept 22, 1956; LPC Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery Designation Report, 1985; LPC AME Zion Church Designation Report, 2011; Sandy Ground Memories (Mosley 2003); “Sandy Ground: Archaeological Sampling in a Black Community in Metropolitan New York,” (R. Schuyler 1974), The Conference on Historic Site Archaeology Papers 1972, Vol. 7, pp.13-52; “Early Black Settlement Struggles to Preserve Heritage,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 15, 1991; “Repairs Start After Vandalism In Historic Black Cemetery,” New York Times, July 8, 1998; “On Visionary Soil, the Dream Turns Real, New York Times, Nov 7, 2008; Vintage Photos of Sandy Ground (SI Advance); Beers’ 1874 Atlas of Staten Island Sec 23; NYCityMap

Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery

SSH April 2017
A view of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, lead a life of peril, hardship and excitement . . . When the storms have been weathered, and the harbors reached they are usually ready for whatever good things the land has to offer, and when old age overtakes them to settle down about a quiet fireside . . . among them none holds so high a place as Sailors’ Snug Harbor . . . unquestionably the most famous sailors’ retreat in the world . . . One thousand old men, gathered from all quarters of the world under a single roof, make a curious and sometimes querulous collection . . . They may walk on the lawn, sit in the sunshine, dream under the trees, and there is nothing to disturb. When they become weary and are laid to rest, a little cemetery whose white tombstones may be seen back of this pastoral abode receives their bodies and then they are left serene. (Theodore Dreiser 1904)

Founded by Robert Richard Randall’s 1801 bequest to create a retirement home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors,” Sailors Snug Harbor opened in 1831 on Staten Island’s north shore overlooking the Kill Van Kull. The 150-acre facility was a self-sustaining community that included dormitories, a working farm, dairy, bakery, chapel, hospital, and cemetery. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 residents, called “Snugs,” who were admitted without regard to nationality, race, age, or religion. By the mid-20th century, the population at Snug Harbor had significantly dwindled and in the 1970s the retirement home was moved to Sea Level, North Carolina, where it is still in operation today. Most of the Snug Harbor property was transferred to the City of New York for a cultural center.

SSH Butler 1853
Sailors’ Snug Harbor in 1853, and the cemetery located south of facility’s main grounds. (Butler 1853)
Location of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery is located just beyond the facility’s old south gate on Henderson Avenue.  Funeral processions went down a tree-lined road that led to the back of Snug Harbor grounds and passed through the south gate on their way to the graveyard, which is situated today near the corner of Devon Place and Prospect Avenue, adjacent to Allison Pond Park.  The six-acre site contains the graves of 7,000 mariners who died at the retirement home between 1833 and 1975. The L-shaped graveyard, dubbed “Monkey Hill” by the Snugs, comprises a flat open field and a small hill and is enclosed by a red brick wall.

Gravestones from the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery on display at the Noble Maritime Collection, May 12, 2017 (Mary French)

At one time in the cemetery’s history, each burial was identified with a gravestone stamped with the four-digit identification number issued when a resident was admitted to the retirement home. As the cemetery became too crowded for stone grave markers, the gravestones were replaced with metal plates, which deteriorated over time and disappeared. Old marble tombstones were also removed from the cemetery to save them from vandals; hundreds of gravestones from the cemetery are now in storage at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Gravemarkers in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, 1919 (SSH Archives)

While most of the Snug Harbor property became part of the Cultural Center or was sold for development, ownership of the cemetery was retained by the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The graveyard has been neglected and vandalized since the retirement facility relocated to Sea Level in the 1970s and the few headstones found sprinkled around the site today are the only evidence of the thousands of men who are buried here.

James Martin a.k.a Edward Leiter, photographed at Snug Harbor, ca. 1900 (SSH Archives)

Most of the tombstones still standing in the cemetery are for residents who died in the early 1900s; one of these is enigmatically inscribed “Edward Leiter Alias James Martin, 1840 – 1914.” Why this mariner used an alias is unknown; his registration shows that he was a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was admitted to Snug Harbor in 1899 after serving 36 years at sea.

The men at Snug Harbor were veterans of hard and dangerous lives at sea and even the modern residents had astonishing tales to tell. One of the most recent markers at the cemetery is for Rudolf Ozol, who died in 1975 at the age of 87. On November 8, 1959, Ozol was a boatswain on the tanker Amoco Virginia that exploded and caught fire while docked at Hess Terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The accident, which caused the death of a fireman and seven crewmen, was reported in newspapers around the country. Ozol, who was described as 71-year-old bearded Latvian, said he went to sea at age 12 but had never learned to swim until that day when he jumped in the channel to escape the blaze. “It was sink or swim and I learned fast,” he said. “I paddled just like a dog the 50 feet to shore. That’s a long way for a man my age but a man will do many things under pressure.”

Ozol_Gravemarker
Rudolf Ozol’s gravemarker at Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery.

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; “Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Home for Aged Skippers,” (T. Dreiser), New-York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1904, p3; Sailors Snug Harbor, 1801-1979 (B. Shepherd 1979), p62; “By Will of a Sea Captain: Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery,” (D. Lane), FACSI Newsletter, 15(3) Fall 1998; The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (G. Barry 2000); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (P. Salmon 2006), p145-148; Gravestones from Monkey Hill, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (Noble Maritime Collection display); “8 Dead in Tanker Blaze as Blasts Rock Houston,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov 9, 1959 p14; “Clues Hunted in Blasted Hulk of Tanker…,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), Nov 9, 1959 pp1-2; NYCityMap.