Greenpoint, October, 2015

Monday, January 13, 2014

Serious Ladies of Staten Island - Part V

If you are familiar with Sandy Ground, the historic community of free blacks on Staten Island, chances are you've read "Mr. Hunter's Grave," Joseph Mitchell's lovely story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1956 (and was subsequently anthologized in The Bottom of the Harbor and Up in the Old Hotel). But Sandy Ground had an earlier and less likely chronicler in the person of Minna Cheves Wilkins.

Minna C. Wilkins
(Portrait by Elsa Wells)
Ms. Wilkins was born in 1885 on Refuge Plantation in Hampton County, South Carolina. Her father had served in the Confederate Navy, and her grandfather had been a successful civil engineer and rice planter--and the owner of 289 slaves. She graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia in 1905, taught for awhile in Virginia, then in 1912 moved to New York City to study at Columbia University. Wilkins gained her PhD in psychology in 1926, and worked as a consulting psychologist and for the Salvation Army Family Service Bureau.

In 1950, she moved from Greenwich Ave. to Staten Island. Much like Dawn Powell or Dorothy Day, she had fallen in love with the Island after taking the ferry to St. George to explore its beaches and countryside. Wilkins had already begun to volunteer with the Staten Island Historical Society, focusing mostly on genealogy. And, eventually, on the history of the Sandy Ground community. Much of her research was conducted through interviews with members of the community in their homes.

Her article, "Sandy Ground: A Tiny Racial Island," was published in the October-December 1943 issue of the Staten Island Historian. The writing is detailed and informative, and, as you might expect, tinged with sentiment. Here Wilkins describes the Sandy Ground oyster industry, the main reason free blacks settled in this then desolate part of the Island (the painting below depicts Sandy Grounders at work, c. 1890):

Alex Matthew (SI Historical Socitey)
As long as the oyster industry flourished on the Island, these people flourished. Many owned their own oyster sloops and oyster beds. At four in the morning they walked down the hill to Princes Bay on the east or Rossville on the west, there to begin their labors on the sea. Some of them had wonderful singing voices and many as song rose from the groups of men striding along the road before day. In the evenings after the day's work, friends and neighbors gathered around telling the tales of what had gone on that day aboard the Fannie Ferne or the Pacific. There are wild tales of the wrangling of the white oystermen over the boundaries of the oyster beds, but the Negroes seem to have held their own.

A great deal of the article is given over to recounting individual family histories: the Henry's, the Cooley's, the Harris's and others. Some of the earliest Sandy Grounders were free blacks from Maryland's Eastern Shore. Wilkins asks,
Why then, was our group minded to leave the Eastern Shore where they are probably property owners engage in in the chief industry of Snow Hill [oysters], among people some of who were filled with the spirit of brotherhood? The reasons were many and various but all might be comprised in the statement that the white community did not want the Free Negroes among them and kept making it more and more difficult for them to make a living.

241 Ascot Ave. (Jan. 2014)
I wanted to see Ms. Wilkins's Staten Island home at 241 Ascot Avenue. It's about two miles from Sandy Ground headed east (inland) along Arthur Kill Road, at the foot of Lighthouse Hill, very close to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art. At first I thought I had the address wrong since Ascot Avenue seemed to dead end at 241 St. George Rd. But a few steps further revealed a small white bungalow fronted by a little dell--running down to what can only be described as a babbling brook. Even more surprising, between the house and brook, a cabin--such as Ms. Wilkins might have known from her youth in South Carolina, though not to live in.

She moved from the house in 1960 and passed away while residing in the Mariner's Family Home in Stapleton, the far side of her adopted Island from Sandy Ground.

(The Research Bureau is indebted to the editors of the Staten Island Historian, and especially to Ms. Elsa Wells, for biographical information about MCW. The cell-phone photograph of a black-and-white reproduction of her oil painting of MCW provides the only image I could find of MCW.)

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