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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 19, 2009
In tracing a migration of sharecroppers to the Pine Bush,
By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND Jennifer Lemak discovered The Promised Land as a graduate student and has since written a book about it.
African-American sharecroppers left Mississippi in the 1930s and ended up settling among the pine trees in Guilderland, a place they called The Promised Land.
Lemak said she had never known this little neighborhood existed, and, once she discovered it she found herself wondering, “How on earth could a group of people from Shubuta, Mississippi end up in Albany, New York?”
Lemak, now curator and senior historian at the New York State Museum, commemorates the history of the Pine Bush community in her book Southern Life, Northern City: The History of Albany’s Rapp Road Community. She will be discussing her book and research on March 3 as part of the Friends 2009 Speaker Series at the Discovery Center in Albany.
The Rapp Road community was recognized as a New York State Historic District on the National and Historic Registry in 2002, nearly 75 years after it was founded. The traditions of the founders have been instilled in the generations of residents that followed.
Beverly Bardequez, who was born on Rapp Road in 1949, the same year her grandparents built their house there, has lived in the community her whole life. Her earliest recollections of life there involve her grandparents raising chickens and pigs, and being sent out to the gardens to pick vegetables for meals. She said that living on Rapp Road meant being very church oriented. In addition to weekly church services, noon-day prayer meetings were held at one of the houses.
“There was a sense of family,” said Bardequez. “We were all related, whether by blood or through the church.”
Bardequez said the community has changed in the sense that it has had to adjust to the economic growth around it. “We’ve had to be really careful not to let them encroach on us,” she said. “Our dirt road has become a thoroughfare, but we’ve tried to keep our values intact.”
She said the residents of The Promised Land are still very much connected to the church, and family is just as important. “My family are my neighbors,” Bardequez said.
In documenting the community, Lemak, who is white, has become close to its members. But the journey has taken years. As a graduate student at the University of Albany and an employee at the Albany Institute of Art and History in 2000, Lemak was seeking a research paper topic. Wesley Balla, curator of history at the institute, compiled a list of historic African American possibilities, and from them she chose to explore the Rapp Road community.
Balla warned Lemak that it might be hard for her to convince residents of the community to talk to her, so she had Wayne Jackson, New York State Assembly’s Sergeant at Arms and a former Rapp Road resident, put her in touch with community leader Emma Dickson. Dickson organized all of Lemack’s first interviews.
Lemak was fascinated by the Rapp Road community and decided to continue researching its history for her doctoral dissertation. When Dickson informed her that she would like to get Rapp Road recognized on the National and Historic Registry, Lemak offered to write the nomination. During this time, she grew quite close to members in the community, and even traveled with Dickson and Dickson’s sister to Shubuta, to see the life they’d left behind. She began lecturing in conjunction with Dickson, and was present when they received the news that Rapp Road was designated as a New York State Historic District. “When the nomination passed, I was just as excited as the community’s residents,” said Lemak.
Throughout her several years of research, Lemak learned that the community originated when Pastor Louis W. Parsons, a traveling preacher, moved to Albany from Shubuta, Miss. in 1927. Her book tells his story through the memories of the current residents. His intent was to start his own church, which he did in founding The First Church of God in Christ, at 79 Hamilton Street in Albany. To increase membership of the parish and help other African-Americans escape from the harsh life of sharecropping in the South, Parsons traveled back and forth between Albany and Mississippi, driving people north in his car.
The Southerners settled in to Albany’s South End at first, but found it riddled with drugs, drinking, and prostitution. When Parsons was able to buy undeveloped land, running from Gipp Road across what is now Washington Avenue, he sold parcels only to members of his parish. Twenty-three families migrated from Shubuta, to Albany’s South End, then to Guilderland, building houses with their own hands, farming the land, and escaping the cruel landowners for whom they had worked in Mississippi. The residents of the Rapp Road community came to call their neighborhood The Promised Land, because the general belief was that God led Parsons to Albany.
Rapp Road was a tight-knit community from the beginning. “Everyone out on Rapp Road did everything together. You took care of each other’s children. They went to church together, they had prayer meetings together. Whatever had to be done, you got together and did it,” Dickson told Lemak.
When Washington Avenue Extension was built, and the neighborhood was discovered by developers, Dickson knew the community had to do what it could to preserve itself. She started gathering historical information on the community in the 1970s.
“It is important to have people recognize this community and the importance of it to the city of Albany. It is important history of African-Americans who migrated to the North. This community is so different because they came to a strange place, settled in one section of the city, and then decided that they wanted something that was more like home,” Dickson told The Enterprise in 2001. She realized her goal when the Rapp Road Community was recognized on the National and State historic registries in 2002.
“This research and historic designation would not have happened without Emma Dickson’s hard work and dedication,” said Lemak. “She was the driving force behind the community’s preservation.”
Looking to the future
Lemak said that, at the moment, residents of the community feel relatively safe from exploitation and development. The community will retain its designation as a historic district until the features that put it on the register disappear. According to John Bonafide, the New York State Historic Preservation Coordinator with whom Lemak and Dickson worked, those features include the setting, the orientation of the buildings, and the buildings themselves. Many of the houses were by the hands of the original residents.
Today, most of the residents of The Promised Land, like Beverly Bardequez, are descendants of the original families; 13 of the 23 original plots are owned by relatives of the original settlers. The residents hold on to traditions passed down through the years, including hosting a family reunion each summer, during which the streets are blocked off and residents play games and hold a big picnic.
In the summer of 2007, the neighborhood held its 50th reunion, with more than 300 people attending the barbecue. The inhabitants of The Promised Land still belong to the original church that Parsons founded, now re-named Wilborn Temple.
Lemak says that she hopes the land and houses will continue to be passed down through the generations. Bardequez echoed the sentiment. “It is our hope to pass this down to the fourth and fifth generation. It’s an advantage for us to have our roots here. We are sharing our history and traditions with the younger generations so they can appreciate it.” Bardequez said she hopes to pass her home down to either her children or grandchildren.
Lemak said she was fascinated by her research. “I got to meet a whole community of fantastic and interesting people,” she said. “It has inspired me to continue my migration research across the state.” She also has personal ties to the community after her years of research. “I have forged a very close friendship with Emma Dickson, who now watches my kids in her daycare every day.”
Lemak will be discussing her book and research on March 3, at 7 p.m., at the Discovery Center, 195 New Karner Road, Albany. The event is free to the public.