Sandy Ground: A Piece of African-American History in Staten Island

As February rolls in we celebrate and honor the rich African-American history of our country. Schools and communities explore the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans in the United States, from the blight of slavery to the civil rights movement and up to today.

On Staten Island’s South Shore there is a majestic piece of African-American history in Sandy Ground, located in today’s community of Rossville. Sandy Ground first appeared in records dating back to 1799. The name Sandy Ground refers to the rich soil which covered the area.

The first African-American land owners appeared in documents in 1828, migrating from New York, Maryland and Delaware. The first freed black families arrived at Sandy Ground to establish farms and prosper in the oyster trade when new laws in Maryland severely restricted them from harvesting oysters. The South Shore Staten Island oyster trade was very prosperous for these new settlers until it dried up due to overfishing, pollution and industrialization of the area. Eventually the oyster trade ceased to exist after a major typhoid outbreak linked to eating contaminated oysters hit the community. This led to the closure of the oyster bed in 1916.

Rossville AME Zion Church  

In 1930 and 1963 the Sandy Ground community was impacted by severe fires that destroyed significant parts of the community. The community was still able to persevere. One of the anchor points of Sandy Ground was the Rossville AME Zion Church, founded in 1850. Aside from Sunday services, the church hosted many events, including fundraisers, socials, summer camps, concerts and dances. It truly was the epicenter of the community.

One notable member was Reverend Thomas James, a famous abolitionist and civil rights leader. The church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

As the congregation expanded, the community needed a new church. The new AME Church was built in 1897 on Crabtree Avenue between Bloomingdale Road and Turner Street. The original church building was demolished around 1930, but its cemetery still exists with over two dozen gravestones, some dating back to the community’s first days. The AME Zion Church eventually moved to the current location at 584 Bloomingdale Road, where it stands today.

Legacy Lives On  

The Sandy Ground community is preserved in many ways, including the work by the Sandy Ground Museum and Historical Society located at 1538 Woodrow Rd. (Executive Director, Mrs. Sylvia Moody-D’Alessandro). The Museum & Historical

Society hosts classes for children and adults. For more information visit sandyground.wordpress.com.

The newest Public School in the area, a “green” environmentally friendly school located on Bloomingdale Road, includes Sandy Ground in the name: Public School 62: The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability on Sandy Ground.

In April 2017 Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that one of the three new Staten Ferry Boats operated by the New York City Department of Transportation will be named Sandy Ground. The Sandy Ground will join The Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis when the new Boats hit the waterway beginning in 2019.

By Michael Reilly, NYS Assemblyman, former District 31 Community Education Council President and former NYPD Lieutenant