It's a red-letter day for Sandy Ground

Andrew J Lanza

February 03, 2011

From the Staten Island Advance:

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- e 19th century, free New Yorkers of color settled in Woodrow, where they used the "sandy ground" to grow their crops. Yesterday, three of the cottages that housed them and the church that anchored their community became New York City landmarks.

In a unanimous vote -- timed to coincide with Black History Month -- the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted protective status to Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church, the Rev. Issac Coleman and Rebecca Gray Coleman House and two "baymen's cottages" at 565 and 569 Bloomingdale Rd.

"These designations are extremely important to the history of Staten Island," said Pablo E. Vengoechea, the commission's vice chairman and Staten Island representative, noting that they are in a part of the borough that is "rapidly developing."

Free New Yorkers of color established Sandy Ground in the early 1800s as a farming community. They were joined some years later by free black oyster fisherman from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia who came north to work the shellfish beds of Raritan Bay.

Today, a number of descendants still call the area home.

The African Zion Methodist Church, now Rossville AME Zion Church, was formally established in 1849 and the original building on Crabtree Avenue was dedicated in 1854.

When the congregation outgrew its first church, the present location was established at 584 Bloomingdale Rd. Its adjoining cemetery already is a city landmark.

The Coleman house is a vernacular frame structure that was built before 1859. It has been in the possession of Coleman descendants since the couple purchasd it in 1864.

The two baymen's cottages with their peaked roofs were constructed by Robert E. Mersereau between 1887 and 1898 as rental properties. They are typical of the small abodes erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to house workers in the rural areas of New York.

"When I came to the Rosssville A.M.E. Zion Church in 2003, I quickly learned that the people here had a great love for and desire to preserve the history and heritage of their ancestors, the original Sandy Ground inhabitants," said the Rev. Janet Jones, pastor.

"Landmarking these structures insures visible reminders that this community exists because, during the time when slavery was the law of the nation, free blacks dared to pursue the American dream of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' in the South Shore of Staten Island, New York."

State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-South Shore), who worked in recent years for the landmarking designation, said he was "pleased that such a vital piece of history will be protected for future generations."