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Radar Used to Detect Unmarked Burials at Staten Island’s Sandy Ground Cemetery

Conservancy Study Finds More Than 500 Graves In Early African-American Burial Ground
Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery – Rossville, Staten Island

A Landmarks Conservancy report finding more than 500 unmarked graves at a significant early African-American burial ground on Staten Island continues to receive national and international coverage including media outlets in Canada, Great Britain, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa. The report was released at a press conference at the cemetery on July 11.

The purpose of the report is to help the Rossville AME Zion Church, which owns the landmark cemetery, maintain and restore it. But we also hope the coverage will spread the story of Sandy Ground, a once thriving free Black settlement which was established in the 1830’s by African American oystermen from Chesapeake Bay. It thrived until the Raritan Bay oyster beds were closed in the early 1900’s because of pollution. For a time, it was the cultural and social center for African-Americans on Staten Island and parts of New Jersey.

The Conservancy first became involved with Sandy Ground in 1997 when we gave an emergency grant to restore headstones in the cemetery that were toppled by vandals. Most recently, the Church asked us to prepare this report. The Richmond County Savings Foundation and the Conservancy funded the study, which was prepared by Jablonski Building Conservation. Horsley Archaeological Prospection of DeKalb, Illinois did the geophysical survey which uncovered more than 500 unmarked graves.

Media Coverage
WMBC (New Jersey)
NY1 News (July 11)
Daily News
Staten Island Advance

July 2015
Early Results From Cultural Landscape Report – Survey Finds Hundreds of Additional Graves
Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery – Rossville, Staten Island

Some interesting early results were received from the Conservancy’s consultants, Jablonski Building Conservation, which is preparing the Cultural Landscape Report for the Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery (Sandy Ground) in Staten Island. The technician who surveyed the cemetery using ground-penetrating radar hasn’t finished analyzing the data yet, but believes there are about 500 burials in the cemetery. Only about 100 are apparent on a walk-through, though many more people were thought to be buried there.

Of interest also is the marker for a distinguished Sandy Ground resident, George Hunter, who was featured in a New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell in 1956. The marker omits his date of death, which was known to be 1967. Click here to see Mr. Hunter’s house, his grave marker, and actual burial site.


June 2015
Radar Used to Detect Unmarked Burials at Landmark Cemetery

A ground penetrating radar survey was undertaken last week at the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery in Staten Island as part of a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) that is in progress. The CLR, which is being now prepared by the firm of Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc. (JBC), will contain all extant research on this historic site, establish marker conservation priorities, recommend a landscape program for the grounds, and set forth a treatment plan for preserving and managing the cemetery in the future. The CLR is made possible with grants from the Richmond County Savings Foundation and the Conservancy’s City Ventures Fund.

Videos and photos were sent by the project consultant (Stephanie Hoagland-Bond of JBC). JBC’s sub-consultant, Tim Horsley, is performing a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey, as he explains in one video. The objective of the GPR is to identify any burials that are unmarked (or which lost their markers), as suspected by the cemetery’s owner, the Rossville A.M.E. Church.

The town of Rossville on Staten Island, colloquially known as “Sandy Ground,” was once the location of a free black community in the mid-19th century. Black oystermen migrated from Maryland to Sandy Ground as a result of racially restrictive commerce laws that were enacted in Maryland. At Sandy Ground, they bought land, built houses, and started commercial businesses. In 1852, the Rossville A.M.E. Church was erected with a cemetery beside it. Though the Church moved to another location, the cemetery remained as the primary burial place for Sandy Ground’s residents.

By the end of the 19th century, the waters around New York City became polluted, destroying the oyster industry and Sandy Ground with it. Today, little remains of what was once a thriving black community. The original Rossville A.M.E. Church Cemetery, however, is one of its few surviving elements. The cemetery contains about 100 burials, with markers documenting the settlers and their families, their prosperity, and their downturn over 175 years. Many people visit the cemetery regularly, traveling far distances to pay homage to their ancestors. The cemetery is a designated City landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Tim Horsley performing a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey at Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery from New York Landmarks Conservancy on Vimeo.

Tim Horsley performing a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey at Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery – part 2 from New York Landmarks Conservancy on Vimeo.

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