‘Emma Dickson Way’ named for a woman who shaped the Rapp Road community

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Standing behind her mother: Janel Chapple reads a letter from historian and friend Jennifer Lemak at the ceremony renaming Springsteen Road in the historic Rapp Road District after Chapple’s mother, Emma Dickson. Dickson was essential to the years-long effort to see the historic importance of her community recognized.

ALBANY — Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, former State Assemblyman Jack McEneny,  Albany County Legislator Frank Commisso, and Albany County Legislator William Clay were just a few of the dignitaries on hand Saturday for the unveiling of a street sign renaming Albany’s Springsteen Road as “Emma Dickson Way.”

Dickson, now 72, was on hand too, in a wheelchair and apparently asleep, surrounded by proud children and grandchildren.

Dickson was the original force behind, and for many years led, efforts to preserve the district and to keep developers at bay, said several speakers at the event.

The road named for her is part of the Rapp Road Community, located across Washington Avenue Extension from Crossgates Commons, partly in the panhandle of Albany and partly in Guilderland.

The Rapp Road Community is important because it is a rare example of a still largely intact settlement of families who moved, during the Great Migration, from the South to the North between 1910 and 1970.

Dickson’s relatives and other congregants from a church in Shubuta, Mississippi came North, at first to the city of Albany. They did not like the city and almost went back home, but then their pastor, who had brought them north, bought 14 acres in the rural Pine Bush, and then another 14 acres, and sold tracts to the different families. There they built homes and set out to recreate a more familiar, “southern” way of life.

 

Enterprise file photo — Lynn Rothenberg
The force behind the Rapp Road District: Emma Dickson was “a force to be reckoned with,” said Jennifer Lemak, who worked closely with her to write the book “Northern City, Southern Life,” about the Rapp Road Community where Dickson, now 72, still lives. Dickson is seen here in 2002, the year that the community was placed on the State Register of Historic Districts.

 

Today most of the homes are still lived in by descendants of the first settlers. The district, which has been named to the national and state registers of historic districts and, this year, was selected by the New York State Preservation League as one of the “Seven to Save” threatened historic districts.

Dickson’s niece, Beverly Bardequez, said at the ceremony that Dickson was heavily involved in learning about her family’s history, before McEneny introduced her to Lemak, who was interested in writing about the enclave for her graduate work at the University at Albany. Dickson and Lemak — who has since become chief curator of history at the New York State Museum — then worked closely together for years, even traveling to Mississippi to interview family there.

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
The next generation: Jacquitta Ferguson, 25, who is Dickson’s niece and a member of the Rapp Road Historical Association, talks here with former Assemblyman Jack McEneny at the road renaming ceremony. Ferguson is committed to carrying on her family’s work of preserving the community. 

 

Lemak’s dissertation eventually became a book, published in 2008 by SUNY Press, “Southern Life, Northern City: The History of Albany’s Rapp Road Community.”

In a letter that was read aloud at the event, Lemak, who was traveling and unable to attend, said, “Without Emma, there would have been no book, no historic designation, and no Rapp Road community.” She called Dickson “a force to be reckoned with.”

Sheehan said at the ceremony, “We hope that for generations to come, people will stop and ask, ‘Who was this woman?’”

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