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.”

Philip was a successful oysterman, but he died mysteriously in 1832, only two years after arriving on Staten Island. “His great-granddaughter said that he sailed his sloop to New York City with a load of oysters and was bringing back some bricks for his house. A sudden squall must have destroyed the boat, as no trace of it was found and his body was washed up on the shore. He was buried at Port Richmond.”

Eliza, Philip’s widow, married Peter Bogert and raised the Cooley children and a new family, according to the 1850 Census. She also appears in the 1870 Census, aged 65 and living alone. Eliza and several other members of the Cooley family are buried at the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church graveyard.

William Cooley (born in Virginia ca. 1831), youngest son of Philip and Eliza Cooley, became a successful oysterman like his father. The name “W. Cooley” appears at the edge of Prince’s Bay on Dripps’ Map, 1850. This location, near the foot of today’s Sprague Avenue, would be a portion of the 22-acre property that Philip Cooley had purchased in 1830 from Abraham C. Totten. On Sept. 17, 1855, William Cooley purchased four and one-half acres on the east side of today’s Sprague Avenue. The deed states that the purchased land “was part of the lands late of Philip Cooley, deceased, adjoining on the shore of Princes Bay.”

By 1860 William had married Lucy Cooley, his cousin, also born in Virginia, and by 1870 they had six children, ranging in age from 13 years to six months. Obed (d. 1937), the youngest child, 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. After their parents’ deaths three of the children would continue to live in the Cooley house, still standing today at 163 Sprague Avenue. Joel (“Jo”) A. Cooley (1864-1932), also in the oyster business, was well known in later life for his garden. He won prizes in New York for his dahlias. Joel A. Cooley and Mary F. Cooley, his sister, sold the property in 1926.

Baylor Cooley (ca. 1791-ca. 1862), Philip’s brother, born in Virginia, came to live in Tottenville after Philip had purchased his brother’s freedom. In 1835 Baylor purchased farmland from James Totten on the west side of today’s Page Avenue. In 1848 he purchased two adjoining acres . Baylor and his wife Hannah raised four children on their farm. He is listed in the 1840 Census as employed in agriculture. The 1850 Census indicates that two of their children, Solomon, aged 11, and Sarah, aged 13, were attending school. The 1860 Census indicates that Nancy, aged 28, was working as a servant. Solomon, aged 20, was a laborer. Baylor sold small parcels of his land to other members of the family and after his death Hannah and her daughters continued to live on the property.

 

 Walling's Map 1859 / Beach St. (now Page Ave.) / B(aylor) Cooley property circled in red 


 

Since 2009 we have learned more about the descendants of the Cooley family and others from Virginia who settled here.

Next.... Part II:  The Cooley Family in the 20th Century: Second and Third Generations / Dahlias and Doctors