Part II: The Cooley Family in the 20th Century: Second and Third Generations / Dahlias and Doctors
After Philip Cooley’s death in 1832, his wife, Eliza, continued to raise their children and live in Tottenville until her death in 1884. Baylor, Philip’s brother, had purchased two acres on the west side of today’s Page Avenue and engaged in farming. By 1855, he reportedly owned 11 “improved acres.” He grew grain as well as vegetable crops. Baylor Cooley sold several parcels of land on Page Ave. to members of his family and a small community of African American families resided there through the early 20th century. In 1876, several years after his death, the property was subdivided into 26 lots. The survey map titled, “Map of the Estate of Baylor Cooley, Dec’d.,” included Baylor Street and Cooley Street.
Mary A. Cooley (born in Virginia c. 1824), the first child of Philip and Eliza, married Henry Robinson in 1850. Their marriage is recorded in the early record books of Bethel Church, Tottenville. Henry was born in Virginia and moved to Tottenville around 1841. By 1870 the couple had nine children — George, Philip, Walter, Adele, Mary L., Dora, Henry, Martha and Lena — but Henry is no longer recorded on the census. It appears he died shortly after the birth of Lena in 1866.
Rebecca Cooley, daughter of Philip and Eliza who was born in Virginia in 1827, married William Wilmore, born in Maryland c. 1818. They had at least eight children who eventually left Staten Island to live in Manhattan or New Jersey. In 1891, the children of Rebecca and William Wilmore inherited the Raritan Bay waterfront property as heirs of Philip Cooley.
William Cooley (born in Virginia c. 1831), the youngest son of Philip and Eliza, became a successful oysterman. In 1855 he purchased four-plus acres on the east side of Sprague Avenue. This was “part of the lands late of Philip Cooley, deceased.” William married his cousin Lucy Cooley, born in Virginia in 1827, and by 1870 they had six children. Lucy died in 1919. Her obituary states she was “the oldest colored citizen of Staten Island,” and described her as “highly gifted, a great reader and never failed to take a deep interest in public affairs.” She was an avid gardener, and her residence was one of the showplaces of Tottenville.
In 1875 Baylor Cooley’s widow, Hannah, and their two daughters lived in neighboring households: Charlotte, with husband William Decker and nine children; and Charity with husband Robert Frank Herdon and three children. By 1880 Nancy B., a third daughter and oldest child, resided there also, along with husband William Chavers. The three sisters, Nancy, Charlotte and Charity, died in 1909, 1912 and 1914 respectively. They represent the last progenies of Baylor and Hannah to reside in Tottenvile on the Page Avenue property. Cheevers [sic] Lane remains a mapped street there today.
Solomon, born in Tottenville in 1837 and the youngest son of Baylor and Hannah, became a farmer like his father. In 1863 he enlisted in the U.S. Army for a term of three years, and was mustered in the 20th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry. On June 16, 1864 he was discharged from a New Orleans hospital due to disability and returned to Tottenville.
Joel A. Cooley (1864-1932), the son of William and Lucy, was also in the oyster business. In 1911 Joel became the “first colored man to serve on a grand jury” in Richmond County. Joel was well known in later life for his bountiful flower and vegetable gardens and is credited with introducing the fig tree to Staten island. He won numerous prizes in New York for his dahlias. In 1930 Joel won first prize for the twelfth year in a row at the American Dahlia Society show held at Madison Square Garden. The newspaper reported on the event as follows: "Growers come from all over the country, and Mr. Cooley has the distinction of being the only Negro exhibitor " After Lucy’s death, three surviving siblings continued to live in the Cooley house, still standing today at 163 Sprague Avenue. Joel and his sister, Mary F., never married. Mary died in 1936, the last living descendant in Tottenville to bear the Cooley name.
Obed Cooley (d. 1937), the youngest child of William and Lucy, was said to have been the brightest boy in the Tottenville schools. He attended the University of Michigan and became a successful medical doctor practicing in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Robinson Family
Mary A. Cooley, daughter of Philip and Eliza, married Henry Robinson, born in Virginia ca. 1821. According to the 1855 census, Henry relocated to Staten Island around 1846. It is believed he is the progenitor of the Tottenville African American family named Robinson. Henry apparently died around 1867, leaving Mary to raise nine children. This large family continued to live on property that is still labeled “Robinson’s Beach” on property tax maps.
Later generations of the Cooley-Robinson family left Staten Island for other boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. Willis Robinson (1856-1929) and his wife, Mary L., both born in Virginia, were likely related but their relationship to Henry has not yet been determined. They lived in Tottenville for a short time before relocating to Brooklyn. Their first born child, Henry S., born 1880 in Tottenville, was the first African American to graduate from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. For more than 40 years, he served as chief clerk at the Bridge Street A.M.W.E. Church in Brooklyn. In September 1949, three months before he died, he was honored by Mayor O’Dwyer as the only African American to work for the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit System (B.M.T.) for 50 years. Philip C. (1890-1957), another son, was a graduate of the Harvard University School of Dentistry. He practiced dentistry in Brooklyn for 33 years.
George W. Robinson (b. 1850 in Tottenville) was the first born child of Henry and Mary A.(Cooley) Robinson. He was an oysterman. George married May Etta Morse, reportedly of Native American heritage. George and May, along with their children, would be the last Robinsons to reside in Tottenville on Robinson’s Beach.
Next....Part III: Robinson’s Beach
Henry S. Robinson, c. 1949