Tottenville's Early African American History

Part I  The Cooley Family

An African American community of families settled in the Tottenville area as early as 1830, but it was not until 2009 that their story came to light. In Chapter 3 of Tottenville, the Town the Oyster Built, Barnett Shepherd introduces the Cooley family — Philip and Eliza Cooley, African Americans from Gloucester County, Virginia — as follows:

One of the early families to settle in the emerging town of Tottenville was that of Philip and Eliza Cooley, African Americans from Gloucester County, Virginia. Philip Cooley (“Cooler” is a spelling also used) was an oysterman. He married Eliza Morris (1805-1884) while in Virginia. Eliza had purchased Philip’s freedom. As free blacks they could not remain in Virginia and relocated with their children to Staten Island. Abraham Cole Totten, the sea captain, who sailed often to Virginia and Maryland for oyster seed, must have encouraged them to locate on Staten Island, because on June 7, 1830, he sold Philip 22 acres.

Philip filed copies of his freedom papers in the County Clerk’s Office on Staten Island. This made it impossible for anyone to consider him a runaway slave.

"Certificate of Emancipation of Philip Cooler. 1830. No. 131. Philip Cooler, a tawny colored man, 35 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high, having a scar on the back of his right wrist, one on the back of his right hand, and a small one over his right eye, and emancipated by Eliza Morris by deed recorded in Gloucester County court is registered in the office of Gloucester County, April, 1830.

The register of Philip Cooler, a person of color was examined by court and found to be truly made.”

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A Hands-on Learning Experience

Window sash constructed in the 18th and 19th century was assembled with mortise and tenon joints using wooden pegs to hold the joints tight. They were made to be taken apart, repaired and put back together easily.  Simple, yet ingenious.  

We were excited to visit the Henry Hogg Biddle House of Conference House Park recently with Park Director John Kilcullen to have a look at the room we would soon occupy and use for our office and research center.  The office space is located on the second-floor of the Biddle House.  The room is spacious with tall ceilings, wooden floors, and large, six-over-six sash windows that offer a sweeping view of Satterlee St. and the long entrance driveway.  A piece of plywood covered the bottom half of one of these windows. Removal of the plywood revealed three missing panes of glass in the lower sash; two of the remaining three panes were cracked and needed replacement.   The Tottenville Historical Society offered to make the necessary repairs.

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Our Tottenville High School class of 1967 was celebrating their 50th class reunion; we decided to hold a two-day affair on Saturday, October 21 and Sunday, October 22, 2017.  Since so many of our classmates were traveling from other states, a lot of classmates took time to visit friends and family on Staten Island and to visit Manhattan.

We had our first event at the Hilton Garden Inn, where we hosted 97 people at a cocktail party.  We had a DJ who played songs from the 1960’s.  One of the ways we took a step back in time was to do a highlight of our class history.  Here is what I read at our reunion:

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Oriental Park, Eltingville

oriental 1898


Frederick Wilkens owned and operated a grocery store and hotel, and later a resort known as Oriental Park at the intersection of Amboy Rd. and Richmond Ave. from the late 1860s to the early 1900s. Oriental Park featured a hotel, bowling alley, dancing pavilion, and even a shooting gallery according to this 1898 map detail.

Around 1900 the park was a favorite destination for bicyclists from all over New York City.

Later Westerleigh Savings Bank occupied the corner. Richmond County Savings Bank is located there today.

(Reprinted from the September 2016 issue of The CART, official newsletter of the Tottenville Historical Society.)