By Margaret Saunders
This February at Sandy Ground’s Rossville AME Zion Church, the word of the month is Sankofa. The word and its accompanying symbol, a long-necked bird turning its head to look back, originated with the Ghanaian Akan Tribe. Reverend Janet H. Jones, the church’s pastor explains, “Literally translated, it means ‘it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.’” In Sandy Ground, Staten Island, one of the oldest continuously inhabited Black communities founded prior to the Civil War, this is a philosophy the descendants of its founders have come to live by.
Founded in the early 1800s by Free Blacks, Sandy Ground enjoyed nearly a century of economic success, bolstered by the booming oyster business made possible by its proximity to Prince’s Bay. Today, gentrification has transformed what was once a largely rural area into suburbia, and various natural and man-made disasters have driven many of the original families out of the South Shore. However, those that can trace their roots in Sandy Ground back to its earliest residents still return and have successfully lobbied the city to have ten residences in the neighborhood named historical landmarks. During her sermon, Jones emphasizes the importance of this preservation—the belief that after what has been an arguably trying year for Black communities nationwide, Sandy Ground and its history are more significant than ever.
The small stretch of land located on Staten Island’s South Shore was originally called Harrisville, named for brothers Moses and Silas Harris, who founded the community in 1828 only a few months after the abolition of slavery in New York State. Over the course of the next decades, free Blacks flocked to the area and following this influx, it came to be known as Little Africa for a brief amount of time before finally being christened Sandy Ground.
“At its height [in the late 19th century], it was home to 180 families, two churches, and two schools, which was very impressive for such a small community,” says Sylvia Moody D’Alessandro, one of the founders of The Sandy Ground Historical Society. “They were very successful.”
They continued to thrive for nearly a century and going into the 1900s, its future looked promising—families in Sandy Ground were economically secure and neighbors took care of each other in the close-knit community. But despite all of Sandy Ground’s prolonged prosperity, by the 1960s, it was on the verge of disappearing entirely. Already in economic decline due to pollution in Prince’s Bay, which entirely halted the oyster business in the area, the community was devastated by a brush fire in the spring of 1963.
“The fire went all the way from Great Kills to the Southern tip of Staten Island. There’s bad water pressure down here, so it was hard to fight the fire,” D’ Alessandro says. “We lost twenty-five homes. And we weren’t that big to start with, so it was significant.”
Following the fire, families that could trace their roots back to the early days of Sandy Ground left en masse. Today, only ten of the original families still live in the area and the Black population is dwindling. However, despite these setbacks, the descendants of the Sandy Ground founders insist they are still here and they have something important to offer.
“Were Black people chosen by God to suffer?” Pastor Jones asks her congregation. She is a visually strong woman with a commanding presence, but her voice breaks when she poses the question. The crowd is made up, not only of the few remaining families, but those that moved away to the North Shore and New Jersey.
“Their lives are busy and they’re hard,” says parishioner Deborah Santulli-Baron. “But they still make it back here every week.”
During the sermon, Pastor Jones encourages the families to look to their ancestors, and to remember their suffering and their perseverance. But this isn’t a community stuck in the past—rather, they are looking to history as a guide for navigating the sometimes tumultuous here and now. Following the service, Pastor Jones announces an upcoming basketball game between a Staten Island church’s team and police officers, an effort by local law enforcement, still stained by the death of Eric Garner, to improve relations with the community. There are murmurs in the crowd, and someone calls out, “Yea, well, they need to.”
Sandy Ground is located only a twenty minute drive from the Tompkinsville area of Staten Island, where Garner, an unarmed Black man, died last summer after being restrained by police in an illegal chokehold. In December, a Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer responsible. The year leading up to the grand jury decision was marked by the police-induced deaths of similarly unarmed Black men, including Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, and Akai Gurley in Brooklyn’s Pink Houses.
Now, the descendants of Sandy Ground hope that by keeping their history and present day community alive, they can serve as an important symbol for the nation. The church participates in marches for various causes and hosts everything from AA meetings to bible study during the week. The Sandy Ground Historical Society hosts an annual BBQ, and holds a quilt making class, where participants quilt the story of the neighborhood, stitching historical landmarks and famous figures, including abolitionist Louis Napoleon. But perhaps the most important responsibility the community takes on is teaching its history to new generations through their museum and guided tours.
“It’s brought us more visibility recently, more attention,” says D’ Alessandro, in reference to the events of the past year. “The best thing we can do is to get the word out—tell people about ourselves. We’re gonna continue to tell our story.”