Finding Freedom Through Oysters in 19th Century New York (Part Two)

This post was written by Safari Richardson, an undergraduate research assistant at NC State University. 

 

In part one, I mentioned the story of Thomas Downing, a true entrepreneur and revolutionary in the oyster industry among African-Americans. Another case of Black prominence in the 19th century oyster industry is found in modern-day Rossville, Staten Island. Within Rossville is a community named Sandy Ground, one of the oldest free black settlements in the United States, which was entirely founded and maintained through oystering (Urbina, 2003).

Sandy Ground’s establishment is highly credited to Captain John Jackson, who was the first known free African-American in Sandy Ground. He purchased land in New Jersey and used his sloop to transport goods and people all across New Jersey and New York (Askins, 1998). While Captain John Jackson’s reasoning for landing in Sandy Ground is unknown, other African-American oystermen from the surrounding states, such as Maryland, established themselves in Sandy Ground in order to escape the restrictive and unfair oystering laws they faced, which specifically targeted black oystermen (Urbina, 2003).

Why were African-Americans prominent in the oyster industry? Initially, they were part of the industry as slaves, collecting shellfish to supply to their masters and eat themselves (Askins, 1998). As time progressed, being oystermen granted them higher pay, autonomy and freedom that was unavailable in other occupations (Anderson et al, 1998). Even though these individuals were still impoverished, they would have been more impoverished had they chosen another employment opportunity. Additionally, oystermen were their own bosses, a unique job aspect in the 19th century; they went out on the water, harvested, and later sold their hand-picked oysters. Instead of working under a white man, these people worked for themselves. This sense of freedom and individual determination is what really drew African-Americans to this industry.

The people of Sandy Ground, referred to as “Sandy Grounders” remained in the oyster industry until the industry collapsed in the early 1900s due to a typhoid outbreak and pollution concerns. This forced them to find employment elsewhere, mostly in factory work. At this time, they also had to compete with European immigrants for these jobs (Askins, 1991). The story of Sandy Ground is unprecedented, as it is one of the few independent free-black communities established in the 19th century. Seeing how these ambitious individuals made a living and dominated the oyster industry in a time of extensive racism is truly captivating.

The determination, persistence, and historical influences seen through Thomas Downing’s and Sandy Ground’s narratives are inspirational, yet often overlooked or unknown. Hopefully, this post will allow us to broaden our knowledge regarding the oyster industry and the lives of those that contributed to it. Both of these stories are of great importance, and should be highlighted as such. Did you know about these remarkable stories, or any others of similar sentiment and value? Feel free to share!

 

Works Cited

Alice Austen Collection, Staten Island Historical Society (Featured image).

Anderson, Harold, and Sandy Rogers. 1998. “Maryland Marine Notes.” Maryland Sea Grant, 1998. https://www.mdsg.umd.edu/sites/default/files/files/MN16_2.PDF.

Askins, William. 1991. “Oysters and Equality: Nineteenth Century Cultural Resistance in Sandy Ground, Staten Island, New York.” Anthropology of Work Review 12 (2): 7–13. https://doi.org/10.1525/awr.1991.12.2.7.

Askins, William Victor. 1998. Sandy Ground: Historical Archaeology of Class and Ethnicity in a Nineteenth Century Community on Staten Island. New York, New York. http://tripsaver.lib.ncsu.edu/pdf/1039565.pdf.

Urbina, Ian. 2003. “They Will Not Be Moved; A Bastion of Black History Amid S.I. Development.” The New York Times, November 4, 2003.

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