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ROSSVILLE AME ZION CHURCH, 584 Bloomingdale Road, Staten Island, NY

Built: 1897; Andrew Abrams, builder

Landmark Site: Borough of Staten Island Tax Map Block 7267, Lot 101

On August 10, 2010, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on the proposed designation as a Landmark of the Rossville AME Zion Church and the proposed designation of the related Landmark Site (Item No. 2). The hearing had been duly advertised in accordance with the provisions of law. There were six speakers in favor of designation including a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rossville AME Zion Church who read a letter of support from Rev. Janet Jones. Other speakers on behalf of the designation included representatives of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, the Preservation League of Staten Island, the Society for the Architecture of the City, and the Historic Districts Council. The Commission has received two letters in support of the designation, including one from the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America. There were no speakers or letters in opposition.

The 1897 Rossville AME Zion Church is a rare and important surviving building from the period when Sandy Ground was a prosperous African American community on Staten Island. Beginning in the 1840s through the early 20th century, this area, called Woodrow, Little Africa, or (more commonly) Sandy Ground, was home to a group of free black people residing in more than 50 houses. For much of that time, many of the residents were employed in the oyster trade or in farming. Sandy Ground is located is the southern part of Staten Island, not far from the shipping port of Rossville on the Arthur Kill to the north and the prime oyster grounds of Prince’s Bay on the south. The first African-American residents purchased property in the area in 1828 and their numbers were bolstered by the arrival of numerous families from Snow Hill, Maryland, who settled in Sandy Ground in the 1840s and 1850s. These were free blacks who had been involved in the oyster trade on the Chesapeake Bay and came to New York because Maryland had passed a series of harsh laws in the 1840s and 1850s that made it difficult for them to ply their trade. The Sandy Ground community thrived for many years, built substantial houses and established successful businesses and institutions, chief among them the Rossville AME Zion Church.

Rossville AME Zion Church

The founder and first minister of the church was William H. Pitts, a Virginia-born African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister who purchased land in Sandy Ground in May 1849 and began holding prayer services in his home. The African Zion Methodist Church in the Village of Rossville, now Rossville AME Zion Church, was formally established in December 1850. In 1852, the congregation purchased land on Crabtree Avenue, near Bloomingdale Road where they erected a no longer extant church building (dedicated 1854) and established the Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery (a designated New York City Landmark). By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its first church and purchased this site. The present building was constructed in 1897 by Tottenville builder-developer Andrew Abrams. Over the years the AME Zion Church has played a central role in Sandy Ground. It has had a number of prominent ministers including the famed abolitionist and civil rights leader Thomas James (1872), Rev. Isaac Burk Walters (1906-07), and the renowned minister, missionary, and suffragist Florence Spearing Randolph (1919-1922). Rossville AME Zion was also renowned for its camp meetings, open- air barbecues, clambakes, and other social events that drew hundreds of participants both black and white. The church remains in use and descendants of the original founders are still members of the congregation.

Originally a simple clapboarded vernacular frame structure with a gabled entrance porch, the building has been reclad with faux brick siding but retains its original form and fenestration pattern. It survives as a tangible and visible link to the rich history of the Sandy Ground community.

EARLY COMMUNITY FORMATION

Sandy Ground – Early Years

The Sandy Ground community was founded on a section of high ground near the center of the southern part of Staten Island, midway between the South Shore communities of Prince’s Bay and Rossville. This area has been known by various names through the years, such as Woodrow, Harrisville or Little Africa, and its center is at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads. Since this area is inland, rather than along the shore, and was still wooded in the mid 1800s, it was not seen as desirable and therefore was not expensive. The name Sandy Ground first appears on records dating to 1779 and refers to the sandy soil of the area, particularly good for growing certain crops such as strawberries and asparagus.Staten Island was inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans. 3 Archaeologist Alanson B. Skinner reported finding evidence of a Woodland Period (2700BP-AD 1500) Native American village at the center of what would become Sandy Ground and there are two documented Native American sites on the lot of the AME Zion Church.4 While most Native Americans left the island by 1700, a few remained and their descendents could be found on Staten Island as late as the early 1900s. At Sandy Ground, several black families claimed Native American descent and Skinner observed that the Native American tradition of grinding corn with wooden mortars and pestles continued at Sandy Ground into the 1890s.

During the colonial period Staten Island was largely settled by Dutch and Huguenot families with a scattering of English and other Europeans.5 Many settlers brought white indentured servants or black slaves to the island, with slaves making up between 10 to 23 percent of the population. During the first half of the 19th century Staten Island’s African-American population continued to grow. Some of these people were previously slaves of local residents, while other free blacks chose to settle on Staten Island because land was available and inexpensive.6 Land ownership records show African-American residents purchased land in Sandy Ground before 1830. John Jackson bought 2 ó acres of land in 1828 while he and Thomas Jackson (relationship unknown) purchased eight acres in 1835. Apparently John Jackson operated a ferry between Rossville and Manhattan at this time.7

In the 1840s and 50s, these first settlers were joined by several other African American families who came from an area of Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay called Snow Hill.  Although Maryland was still a slave state in the years before the Civil War, it also had a large number of free blacks, many of whom were involved in the oyster trade.8 Concerned with the example set by these free blacks for those still living in slavery, Maryland passed a series of restrictive laws to control and limit the activities of free black people. These new laws forbade free blacks to captain their own oyster boats or to own guns (which limited their ability to procure food for their families). In response, several African American families involved in the oyster trade moved to Staten Island. The waters off Staten Island were well known for the fine and numerous oysters they produced. The oyster industry provided jobs for many people on Staten Island throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As the oyster beds off Staten Island started to become depleted, a constant stream of maritime traffic developed between these two areas, allowing familiarity and an easy movement of people as well as products. Family names of some of these African Americans who came to Sandy Ground from Maryland at this time included Bishop, Henman, Landin, Purnell, Robbins and Stevens, while others, including the Harris and Henry families came from elsewhere in New York and New Jersey.

The area attracted more and more free residents of color and established its own distinct community in this period before the Civil War, creating at Sandy Ground a very early neighborhood within (what is now) New York City where free African Americans owned their own property.10 Even before the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, there had been free blacks in the city, and they tended to live together in small enclaves in different parts of each county, but usually they did not own their own homes.11 It was generally difficult for newly freed people to earn enough money to purchase land, or to find individuals willing to sell it to them if they could afford it. Only a few other communities of land-holding African Americans have been documented in New York at this time. The first was probably Seneca Village, begun around 1825 when John Whitehead sold off small parcels of his land near what later became Central Park, between 79th and 86th Streets, and Sixth and Seventh Avenues.12 By 1855, the census listed 264 people at this location, consisting mostly of blacks but also including some whites (mostly Irish and German immigrants), and at least three churches, a school and a cemetery. Against the wishes of the residents the village was destroyed as part of the construction of Central Park by the end of the decade. Another settlement of free blacks began in the 1830s, but was firmly established in 1838 when James Weeks purchased property from the Lefferts family estate in what was (then) the outskirts of Brooklyn, now Bedford-Stuyvesant.  More than 100 people lived in this stable African American community throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries.13 At Sandy Ground African Americans were also able to own property and start their own institutions, such as churches and schools.

The origins of the church at Sandy Ground date to May 1849 when William H. Pitts, a Virginia-born African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, purchased land on Crabtree Lane west of Bloomingdale Road. He built a house and began holding prayer services in his house and in the home of his neighbor, William Stephens. In December 1850 a group of residents gathered at Pitts’ home to found the African Zion Methodist Church in the Village of Rossville, now Rossville AME Zion Church, and elect five Trustees. On December 11, 1852, this group purchased land on Crabtree Avenue for a church. A “plain wooden structure” (no longer extant), seating 150 persons, was erected by 1854. A cemetery was established on land to its west. (The Rossville AME Zion Church cemetery is a designated New York City Landmark.) These activities are indicative of the thriving and stable community that had developed at Sandy Ground.

The oyster industry was quite successful on Staten Island and some of those who pursued it became wealthy, while others were able to support their families in a comfortable manner for many years. Several residents of Sandy Ground were able to purchase their own boats for dredging oysters, while others worked aboard the boats of others. As the local oyster beds became depleted because of overfishing, the industry learned to harvest seed oysters from other locations and bring them to the waters off Staten Island to mature because the conditions there were ideal for growing oysters. This activity, as well as oyster shucking and processing employed numerous Sandy Grounders for many years. Eventually support businesses sprang up in the area, such as that of William Bishop, who built and operated a forge to create the longhandled rakes necessary for dredging the oysters.

Pollution in the waters off Staten Island began to poison the oysters by the early years of the 20th century. The oyster beds were officially closed in 1916, after several outbreaks of typhoid due to eating polluted oysters. The community of Sandy Ground, so dependent on this industry, gradually declined. Some residents were able to find work in local factories or commuted to Manhattan or New Jersey for jobs. Others relied on small farms to feed their families and supply markets in Manhattan. But eventually, this community of free and prosperous African-American families diminished with severe fires in 1930 and in 1963 destroying many homes and property. However, there is still a recognizable community in Sandy Ground consisting of descendents of people who have lived in the area for more than 100 years, and who remain involved in the activities of the AME Zion Church whether they live locally or away.

The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

At the founding of the Wesley Chapel (later John Street Methodist Church) in New York in the 1760s, blacks both free and enslaved were encouraged to participate in church ceremonies and revival meetings. The John Street Methodist Church was responsible for helping to secure the freedom of some of its early congregants, notably church sexton Peter Williams, but, although appreciative of the church’s strong stance against slavery, many blacks were dissatisfied with church policy on other matters.15 

In 1796 several African-American members of the John Street Methodist Church applied to Bishop Francis Asbury to hold separate meetings. First choosing the name “African Chapel” and later Zion – “because it is the name most frequently used in the Bible to designate the church of God”16 – the founding members, led by the first Zion prelate, James Varick, established an official doctrine that “no distinction should be made in the church on account of race, color or condition.”17 The new congregation rented a cabinetmaker’s shop on Cross Street, between Orange (Baxter) and Mulberry Streets, where it conducted its first services. By 1800, enough money had been raised to erect a church building at the southwest corner of Church and Leonard Streets, which served the congregation until 1864. Zion was the only African-American church in the city of New York until the founding of the African (Abyssinian) Baptist Church in 1808. By 1819, the growing Zion membership raised $11,500 to construct a larger stone edifice on the site of its small wood church.

During this initial period the Zion Church remained under the control of the John Street Methodist Church.18 On July 26, 1820, led by Varick, all but 61 of Zion’s 751 members voted to withdraw altogether from the white “Mother” Methodist Church denomination and form a separate “Conference” of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches. Within a decade more than a dozen affiliate Zion churches were formed in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and also Canada.

Early 19th-century Zion Church history was characterized by outspoken activism in the abolitionist movement,19 and some of the most famous names in the struggle against slavery were members of the AME Zion denomination. Sojourner Truth, born a slave in New York State and freed upon the state’s Emancipation Day, July 4, 1827, was a member of Mother Zion, speaking often at the Leonard Street pulpit against human bondage. Nationally, the AME Zion Church Conference became popularly known as the “Freedom church.” Harriet Tubman, a champion of the Underground Railroad, and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass were both Zion Conference members. Douglass served as a pastor of the AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. Many Zion Conference churches were part of the network of Underground Railroad stations.

In the post-Civil War period AME Zion remained committed to expanding Civil Rights. It was the first Methodist denomination to extend voting rights to women in 1876 and the first to ordain women ministers in 1884. AME Zion Bishop Alexander Walters and AME Zion member W.E.B. DuBois helped found the NAACP and Bishop Walters was also a pioneering member of the Pan-African Congress. Many of the denomination’s clergy and lay persons were active participants in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

The AME Zion Church had about 4,600 members and 105 preachers in 1860. Following emancipation, the church sent missionaries to the South, Southwest, and California and by the end of decade had 125,000 members and 840 churches, pastored by 760 elders, 142 deacons, and 143 preachers. In the second half of the 19th century the church established foreign mission programs in South America, Africa, and the Caribbean. By 1896 membership had grown to 359,000. Currently AME Zion has “member churches on all continents but Australia” and about 1.4 million members worldwide.20 Committed to education, it maintains four colleges and universities Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina; Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Lommax-Hannon Junior College in Greenville, Alabama; and the AME University, in Monrovia, Liberia and two theological seminaries Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, North Carolina; and Hood Speaks Theological Seminary in Akwa Ibon State, Nigeria. It has also set up numerous schools and clinics in Ghana and Nigeria. In addition many individual churches have Sunday Schools and have instituted social service programs to help families find low-income housing, jobs, health care, and day care.

The Summer Adventures of Landin Henry by Janise Laboard Sandyground Children’s Books – Telling the stories of ancestors in Staten Island NY  (Email to Purchase)

Sandy Ground Memories Paperback – by Lois A. H. Mosley

Available online link at: Amazon Books

For more historical information about the Sandy Ground Community visit:

https://thesandygroundhistoricalsociety.org/