A Staten Island Church Founded by Former Slaves Looks to the Future During Black History Month

As we continue our coverage of Black History Month here on NY1, we visit places across the boroughs that take on historical significance for the city's black communities. We begin on Staten Island — where congregants of one church have for decades celebrated their culture, and that of their ancestors — freed slaves who made their home on the borough.

As a girl, Charlotte Griggs attended services every Sunday at the Rossville AME Zion Church.

Her mother sang in the choir. Now, Griggs sings here in the African American congregation on Staten Island's south shore.

"It's just a history," Griggs said. "It's a lot of things that used to go on. And I mean you know, they're in the back of your head. And you just feel like this is home."

Rossville AME Zion was founded in 1850, just years after freed slaves first settled on Staten Island, forming a community of oyster fishermen in an area known as Sandy Ground.

The community thrived during the 19th century, and Rossville AME, re-built in 1897, was at its center.

Many, like Yvonne Taylor, can trace their family's roots here back five generations.

Her great-grandfather was a pastor and helped found the church, and lived in this home on Woodrow Road, now a city landmark.

The home was built out to accommodate a large family that soon followed, including Taylor's grandfather, an oysterman named Steven Grey:

"He had a long white beard as you can see," Taylor said. "And during the week he braided the beard. And on Sunday, he combed it out. That showed that they always thought that there was something special about Sunday."

Pollution forced an end to oyster fishing sometime in the 1910s, and many families moved.

The tight-knit community was further diminished after a fire in 1963.

While Sandy Ground has dwindled over the years, a museum honoring the historic community opened in the 1980s, and the church, a city landmark, endures as a pillar of African-American life: 

"History is important," Taylor said. "And I feel sorry for people who don't have relatives who can tell them something about their heritage."

At its peak, the church drew some 75 congregants for Sunday services that lasted all day.

Today, that number is closer to 50, and they come from all over, drawn to the church because of their personal connection.

"People are really invested in continuing this congregation and helping it to create a new future for it," said Reverend Janet Jones.

And that's why you'll hear the choir sing old hymns, with new voices.

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