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Sandy Ground, an Historial Black Settlement, Keeping the Past Alive - 2002-02-27

New York City's Staten Island is home to the United States' oldest continuously-inhabited free black settlement. The community was founded prior to the Civil War by blacks who were born free or who had escaped slavery. As part of VOA's commemoration of Black History Month, Jenny Badner in New York reports on the past and present of the community called Sandy Ground.

The trip from downtown New York City to Sandy Ground begins on the ferry. The commuter vessel leaves New York's skyscrapers behind for Staten Island, which was once countryside with woods, wildlife and a shoreline stocked with oysters.

Today, there is too much pollution to harvest oysters. But back in the early 19th century, a thriving oyster industry drew black families escaping slavery and restrictive laws in other parts of the United States.

The director of the Sandy Ground Historical Society, Julie Moody-Lewis, says the oyster men formed a self-sufficient community in an area founded by two free brothers, Moses and Silus Harris.

"They started a farming community and they laid the foundation for a safe place for other black people who wanted to be free, or who were free," explains Mrs. Moody-Lewis. "They could come and they could raise their families. They could work. They could take care of their children. They could educate their children the way they wanted. They could worship the way they wanted."

Mrs. Moody-Lewis is a descendant of early members of the community, and is dedicated to preserving the untold stories of free blacks. She says many towns were similar to Sandy Ground, which was originally called "Little Africa." "I believe that the history of the Sandy Ground community is not only my family history, black history or Staten Island history," she said. "It is New York State history. It is American history. It talks about a population of free blacks that you don't normally hear about. You hear about the enslaved population, but not about the free blacks."

The historical society is filled with so-called "material culture" - artifacts found in the homes of descendants - which provide clues to the past. Unpublished poetry, marriage licenses, jewelry and tools are among these historical objects.

Many of the items break negative stereotypes about African-Americans, by revealing a town that was prosperous by the late 19th century. For example, 100-year-old black-and-white family photographs in expensive antique frames capture women in fancy lace dresses and mustached men in suits and ties.

Mrs. Moody-Lewis passes on Sandy Ground's history to school children and community groups, often describing how her ancestors brought slaves north to freedom on their oyster boats. A local blacksmith in Sandy Ground clanged his tools together to signal that a former slave had just arrived.

Mrs. Moody-Lewis learned the stories from her mother, Sylvia Moody-D'Alessandro, president of the Historical Society.

"I first learned about the history of Sandy Ground from my grandmother," said Mrs. Moody-D'Alessandro. "I used to go every morning and she would comb my hair for school. And she always told me stories, pieces of stories, while she worked on my hair. And that's why I always had a question about some of the things that I was hearing in the classroom."

Neither Mrs. Moody-Lewis, nor her mother, lives in Sandy Ground any more. The community, which began to change after the oyster industry shut down in 1912, was damaged by brush fires that swept across Staten Island in 1963.

But the real downturn for the descendants came in the 1980s, when New York City sold the rural land that surrounded Sandy Ground to real estate developers. Sandy Ground is now a predominantly-white neighborhood of luxury houses.

About ten families of descendants still live in Sandy Ground. Other descendants return to attend church, reunions, or to visit the cemetery where their ancestors are buried.

Julie Moody-Lewis' sometimes visits the grave of her great-grandfather, William "Pop" Pedro. "It's an active cemetery," she said. "You have families here like 'Pop' Pedro. His wife is here, his daughter is here. Some of the Harris's. The Harris's are the people who founded the community, Moses and Silus Harris. Their descendants are here. One day I'll be buried here."

Despite changes in the community, its history will be preserved thanks to dedicated volunteers like Mrs. Moody-Lewis and the Sandy Ground Historical Society.