“Community” is a word that today has become so overused it is practically meaningless. Broad groups of people, people who have never met, are described as part of a community — “the faith-based community,” “the gay community,” “the handicapped community” and on and on and on.
How rare, then, it is to find a real community, a group of people who know and care about each other, who have the same roots and values, who define themselves, their very identity, as having something in common — the Latin root of the word “community.”
There is just such a community in the Pine Bush, partly in the town of Guilderland and partly in the panhandle of Albany. Those who founded it call their home the Promised Land.
We wrote about the Promised Land more than a decade ago. In 2000, the Albany County Legislature passed a proclamation honoring the black sharecroppers from Shubuta, Miss. who “during the height of the Great Depression…gathered up their families and began a migration to Albany, New York, in search of a better life.”
Emma Dickson, a leader of the community, told us the story of the Rapp Road settlement, the story of African-American sharecroppers living a life of toil in the South during the 1930s as tenant farmers who paid a share of their crops as rent for using the land. It reminded us of the feudal system that lingered in the Helderberg Hilltowns past the Civil War as Dutch patroons collected rent from tenant farms until they rebelled in the Anti-Rent Wars.
“Most of the landowners in Mississippi owned the stores and the land,” Dickson said of her parents’ generation. “Many of the landowners were very fair. But others were not.” She went on, talking about the sharecroppers, “You would go back and pay them what you owed them, but they would say, ‘No, you owe me more than that.’”
Farmers could be trapped. The path to escape was paved by a caring young minister, Rev. Louis Parsons. He had left the South and settled in Albany, founding the First Church of God in Christ. He would bring sharecroppers north from Mississippi, Dickson said, in his Buick, always arranging to arrive on a Saturday night or a Sunday. The landowners knew the farmers spent the entire day in church and did not expect them; by the time the landowners noticed the sharecroppers’ absence, “They were already gone,” said Dickson. “He would bring maybe 14 people in this seven-passenger Buick — food, luggage, whatever they needed because they couldn’t just stop along the highway,” she said, alluding to white society’s refusal to serve blacks.
The sharecroppers settled first in the city of Albany but, as Dickson explained, they were rural people. “They did not like the city life,” she said. “They were used to being self-sufficient. Some, unhappy with their urban setting, started going back to the South.”
So Parsons sought out rural land and bought 22 tracts of Pine Bush land for $400, Dickson said. Dickson’s parents were among the first to buy a plot of land.
“At that time, there was nothing here,” said Dickson. “There were tall pines, land that looked just the way it did where they had come from in Shubuta.”
Slowly, people were able to save money and build homes. It was hard for African-Americans to get mortgages, so they had to save cash, said Dickson. Many of the women, including her mother, did domestic work for hourly wages. She recalled her mother seeing a street clock on the way home from work one day and realizing her employer had changed the times on the clocks in the home where she worked to pay her less.
Those who lived in the Promised Land built their homes by hand. “These people built the homes without architects or contractors,” said Dickson. “They brought the skills and the knowledge they had and used it in the North…No machines. My uncle dug his foundation out by using a horse and plough.”
Now, the foundation of the community — built by hand with heart well over three-quarters of a century ago — is threatened.
When Washington Avenue Extension cut through the community, development followed. The once dirt-cheap Pine Bush land became a sought-after commodity as malls and office complexes were built.
Still, the neighborhood hung together as residents had prayer meetings together, went to church together, looked after each other’s children, and worked to help solve each other’s problems.
Currently, the neighborhood is mobilizing because of the latest encroachment.
Daughters of Sarah Senior Community on Washington Avenue Extension bought the house that was built by the pastor who led the community to the Promised Land.
“It was passed down through two generations,” Beverly Bardequez told our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden, this week. “They want to tear the house down…We’re saying, no, this is our property, this is our legacy, we want to preserve it.”
Technically, of course, the property belongs to Daughters of Sarah, but we understand what Bardequez means.
“Daughters of Sarah decided that, in the interest of building buffers and for what might come in the future, we bought it,” Mark Koblenz, the executive director of Daughters of Sarah, explained.
We credit Daughters of Sarah for being a better neighbor than nearby Crossgates Mall, which bought up homes in another neighborhood but won’t talk to residents there about its plans. Daughters of Sarah representatives have met with residents of the Promised Land neighborhood. Koblenz said the house his not-for-profit company bought needs “a lot of renovation” but plans to demolish it have been put on hold because of the neighborhood residents’ objections.
“The building themselves are not of historical significance,” Koblenz said. “They’re not Colonial or anything.”
That’s where we beg to differ. Plenty of grand structures with pillars of granite have been preserved. But there is more to America’s past. Our country’s history is deeper and broader than the Colonial era and it embraces more than the wealthy.
A few years ago, Emma Dickson joined forces with Jennifer Lemak, who wrote a book about the community, to get the neighborhood recognized as a New York State Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the charm of the Promised Land neighborhood comes from the cohesiveness of the small bungalows, from a similar era, constructed individually by hand. Together, they tell of a rich history, a history of individuals who overcame oppression and built a better life for themselves.
Bardequez, who lives with her daughter and grandson — the fifth generation of his family to inhabit the Promised Land — says, “We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we have a stake in our community.”
That sort of determination is what built the community in the first place. Bardequez says the neighborhood is mobilizing to adopt a charter and organize formally. She is hoping the group will be able to raise the funds to buy the original pastor’s house and restore it.
We urge Daughters of Sarah to sell the house to the neighborhood group. We’ve long admired the compassionate care Daughters of Sarah has shown for its elderly clients and we hope it could extend the same sort of care to its neighbors.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into this soil,” said Bardequez.
We believe her, and we believe there is more to come. But, as she said, it’s worth fighting for. “It’s not everybody,” said Bardequez, “that can say, this is where my roots are.”