Sandy Ground was settled in 1833 by African-American oystermen fleeing the restrictive industry laws of Maryland. Located at Bloomingdale Road, between Rossville and Charleston, it 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.
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 oyster beds in the area. The area was also a junction on the Underground Railroad with the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1850, used as a central meeting place. Residents 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, though not intimate, were for the most part cordial.
As the oyster beds became overworked, many people turned to well digging, iron working, blacksmithing and being midwives. With the central economy eroding, many other families chose to leave the island entirely. In 1964 a fire destroyed many of the old buildings on the site, 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.
Preservation and study of the site are important since it may contain the only intact 18th -century African cemetery in America. The society has run a museum on the site for more than ten years that retains the largest documentary collection of African-American culture and history on Staten Island. The museum preserves material related to the historic town, as well as letters, photographs, film, art, rare books, quilts and other archaeological artifacts. Highlights include a rare surviving can of Tettersalve, a beauty product manufactured by legendary Harlem businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker, and a letter from W. E. B. DuBois.
In 1991 the society received new impetus when the African American Burial Ground was discovered during the digging of an office building in Lower Manhattan. Naturally, much archaeological work remains to be done and for this the society has been raising funds.
The museum has also sponsored arts-and-crafts sessions, a musical heritage series, a lecture series in Staten Island schools and churches, and a national traveling lecture series. There are ongoing quilting workshops in the African-American quilt-making tradition. The museum is an educational research facility chartered by the New York State Department of Education.