Now a neighborhood of southwestern Staten Island, Sandy Ground was settled in 1833 by African American oystermen fleeing the restrictive industry laws of Maryland. Centered at Bloomingdale Road between Rossville and Charleston, Sandy Ground became the first free black community in New York. Originally known as Harrisville and later renamed Little Africa, Sandy Ground received its current designation for the poor quality of soil in the area.
The early settlers included a few local families along with oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill-Maryland who were attracted by the rich oysterbeds in the area and by business opportunities not available in the South. The area was also a juncture on the Underground Railroad with the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church built in 1850, used as a central meeting place. Inhabitants of the area were known to have large plots of land and prided themselves on their industry and self-sufficiency. Relations with local white neighbors, although not intimate, were cordial for the most part.
As the oysterbeds became overworked, many people turned to well digging, iron working, blacksmithing and midwifery. With the central economy eroding, many other families chose to leave the island entirely.
In 1964 a terrible fire destroyed many of the old buildings, although several historic sites were fortunately spared. A 17th century private school; the home of William Pedro, who died in 1988 at the age of 106; and the Bishop Forge, the last private blacksmith shop in New York, still remain. Mr. Bishop, who died July 3, 1986, was an ornamental iron worker who considered his craft an art form and produced works from the same shop his father had opened in 1840.
In 1991, the African American Burial Ground was discovered and with pressure from black leaders, community groups and the intervention of Congress, state officials were compelled to treat the site with an increased level of significance.
Preservation and study of the site are especially important as it may contain the only intact 18th century African cemetery in America. Sylvia Moody-D’Alessandro, granddaughter of William Pedro and for twenty years the driving force behind the Sandy Ground Historical Society, was recently acknowledged with the 1998 Woman of Achievement Award for her dedication to preserving the history of the island.