Article23 Black Settlement

New York’s St. John’s University recently opened a year-long exhibition showcasing the history of America’s oldest surviving free Black settlement, Sandy Ground, which is located in Staten Island’s Rossville community.

“Sandy Ground at St. John’s: Faces of the Underground Railroad” opened on April 12 and will run until Dec. 20 in the university’s refurbished Loretto Library Community Learning Commons. The exhibition explores the community’s detailed history through exhibits, art, literary readings, visiting lectures and workshops.

“With this public humanities initiative, we hope to bring young people of all ages, and other community residents as well, to our campus,” James O’Keefe, professor of criminal justice and vice provost of the Staten Island campus, said in a statement.

As the program traces the history of the Black settlement on Staten Island’s south shore, onlookers will learn about New York State’s abolished slavery law of 1827 and about the freed Blacks who purchased land in Sandy Ground and later used the town as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

Some historians are also reporting that a few Sandy Ground settlers may have also played a role in the founding of Liberia.

“I’m constantly researching information about my background,” said Mary Tarawally, a St. John’s student from West Africa, in a statement. “This wonderful exhibit is an opportunity to connect with a fascinating community that also sheds light on West African history.”

The New York City Council of the Humanities awarded the university an action grant to support its efforts—one of only seven cultural initiatives statewide to receive such funding.