5.15.2012

The Living Spirit of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church

Many of the congregants of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church near the far shores of Staten Island on Bloomingdale Road maintain deep and long family ties to this place, stretching back in time "six, seven, even eight generations," as Reverend Janet H. Jones, their pastor, explained as we walked down the aisles of the historic church. Returning for services on Sunday morning, the descendants reaffirm their ties to this once prosperous black community of Sandy Ground, founded by free African Americans in the 1820s and 1830s. Following settlers from the New York area, new residents came to Sandy Ground from Maryland, especially from the Chesapeake Bay community of Snow Hill, to build a thriving oyster industry that would supply the best New York restaurants. The residents of Sandy Ground started their own schools and churches.

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church, 584 Bloomingdale Road, Staten Island, New York

As the oyster industry flourished, more free people of color found their way to this community in the years before the Civil War. At the time, Sandy Ground served as one area where free blacks owned their own property. Other such areas in New York included Seneca Village, a neighborhood in Manhattan that would be destroyed in the building of Central Park, and the former Lefferts family estate in Brooklyn, now Bedford-Stuyvesant. According to documents prepared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in support of Rossville AME Zion Church's application for landmark status, 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." (source available as a pdf) When the oyster trade suffered as a result of industrialization and polluted waters offshore, the community turned to raising strawberries, as Reverend Jones explained.

This church that has long served as the spiritual heart of the community was founded as the African Zion Methodist Church in 1850 at the home of minister William H. Pitts, and the first church building on Crabtree Avenue was built in 1854. With the community's growing prosperity, land for a new church was purchased in 1890 on Bloomingdale Road. The congregation held its first service in this new church in December of 1897. Down the road, near the location of the original building, the church's cemetery is nestled behind lush overgrown plants and trees.

church interior
As many of the oldest Sandy Ground buildings were lost in a devastating fire in 1963, the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church serves as a living reminder of the story of Sandy Ground. "People were empowered by their faith to come here," Reverend Jones said, "as they embraced the ideas of the Constitution and entrepreneurship." She explained many of the current members now live away from this spot, particularly in the New Brighton community in the northern part of Staten Island. One descendant of the original community returns for annual visits from her home in Georgia. As part of her overall mission of spiritual development and growth, Reverend Jones keeps busy with youth programs at the church, entrusting younger members to ensure the church's future.

One of the sites selected for the Partners in Preservation initiative in 2012, Rossville AME Zion Church is looking to restore the interior of the church, beginning with an analysis for removing more modern features added over time, including acoustic tiles, worn carpet, and siding. Pulling back layers to possibly uncover evidence of earlier details serves as an appropriate metaphor for a church that prizes the long memories of its members. Sandy Ground, Reverend Jones said, "lives in the spirit of the people."



Directions: To visit Rossville AME Zion Church, from Manhattan, take the Staten Island Ferry from the St. George Terminal and then transfer to the Bricktown Mall bound bus. Get off at Bloomingdale Rd near Kramer Avenue and walk to the church.


View Rossville AME Zion Church in a larger map


Resources:
Rossville AME Zion Church on Facebook

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. A big thank you to Reverend Janet H. Jones for her warm reception and sharing the story of her church.

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