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 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.
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.
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 1956 New Yorker article that is now considered a classic piece, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.
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.
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