ROSSVILLE — Work at a Staten Island church has uncovered more than 500 previously undiscovered graves inside one of the country's first free black-founded settlements.
A radar survey in the grounds of the Rossville Zion A.M.E. Church and cemetery, part of the historic Sandy Ground community, found 574 unmarked graves dating back to at least 1853. Some were outside the previously known parameters of the burial ground.
"They thought that there might be a few more burials than they were aware of," said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy which commissioned the study before work was done to stabilize the church.
"It looks like they possibly have another 500 and the report indicated where they are and the great distance that they cover.
"This is one of the most important African-American settlements in the country and one of the most important African-American gravesites."
The church, at 584 Bloomingdale Road, had asked the Conservancy for help developing a plan to stabilize the nearly 170-year-old site, Breen said.
The Conservancy hired a group which did ground penetrative radar which looks nearly 9.8 feet underground.
Though it was predicted graves would be found, the number found was much higher than expected. Researchers found that African-American tradition at the time usually either didn't mark graves or put plants, stones or bricks on them which were eventually lost in time.
The findings are part of a 365-page "Cultural Landscape Report," commissioned by the church and Conservancy and funded in part by the Richmond County Savings Foundation, that also includes a stability and maintenance plan for the historic structures.
"We want it to be a site on the historical tour of Staten Island, one where people don’t want to miss," said Rev. Janet Jones, pastor of the Rossville Zion A.M.E. Church.
"We’re putting together plans to make it just that."
The church will look to improve fencing, clean up the plots, potentially lay a path of oyster shells to honor the oyster farmers buried there and will start a study to stabilize other historic cottages nearby.
For descendants of the original founders of the Sandy Ground community, the discovery was another way to link them back to their ancestors who made their home on Staten Island.
"It makes me very proud to be a part of this and know that I have a history," said Vickie Taylor, who still attends the Rossville church every week.
Taylor has many family members buried in the the cemetery stretching back to the 1800s with Captain John Jackson. "I can trace back my roots pretty far," she said.
The Sandy Ground site was founded in the 1830s by oyster farmers from Maryland trying to escape restrictive farming laws, Breen said.
The founders settled a patch of land in Rossville that was walking distance from the piers and docks and less expensive because it was a heavily wooded area.
The Sandy Ground community later grew to house about 150 families. It introduced a cemetery in 1850 then a church in 1854.
"In the midst of slavery — even though it’s been abolished here in New York, it was not in other areas of the country — people came looking for that American dream," Jones said.
"They can here with a sense of hope and a sense of a new future and established a community here that thrived."
The Zion Church also became a major stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves find freedom in northern states and Canada.
"Slaves were ferried to Staten Island and New Jersey from there," Breen said.
Eventually, the supply of oysters in Raritan Bay dried up and many of the descendants of families from the Sandy Ground community settled elsewhere, Breen said.
However, some descendants of the original founders still remain in Staten Island and work to maintain the history of the site.
"We're trying to make sure that the story remains known to people and people appreciate the history that's there," Breen said.
"There's now suburban development on most of the sides and many of the descendants have moved away, but there are people here who are descended from the oyster farmers. It was a very important place that needs to be honored and remembered."
Despite many of the descendants and members of the church moving to other parts of the island, they still return every week for church and other community functions.
"We all moved away as a family, but this was always home," said Linda Cooper-Ganzy.