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Community care: third-generation Rapp Road resident Emma Dickson. Photo: Chris Shields

Living History

Founded more than 70 years ago by an African-American preacher, the Rapp Road Community is still vital—thanks to a legacy of self-sufficiency and a scrapper’s instinct

By John Rodat

The driver is red in the face, blotchy, harried-looking and abrupt—but Emma Dickson doesn’t seem to notice.

“Is there a gas station around here?” the meaty, bespectacled motorist huffs, almost indignantly.

Leaning forward solicitously and sweeping her long braids back over her shoulder, Dickson points out beyond the tail end of the metallic beige, midsized American sedan, back the way it came just before swerving hazardously to a sharp halt in the oncoming lane.

She offers: “You want to go back out on to Western Avenue—did you come from Western?” There is no answer. So Dickson continues, nearly without pause, “Head back onto Western, turn left and just drive a very short distance and there’s a Mobil right there.”

Without a word of thanks, the driver jerks the steering wheel down, and punches the car through a hard half- circle back to the main thoroughfare off Rapp Road.

Walking away from the rush-hour encounter, away from Western Avenue further into the heart of the small community of modest bungalows and cottages between Western and Washington Avenue Extension, Dickson suggests, “You’re going want to come off the road there. Round this time, they don’t slow down for anyone.”

And it’s true. As the sun begins to set over this cluster of homes in the Pine Bush opposite Crossgates Commons, commuters zip steadily along Rapp Road, unheeding of the two pedestrians skirting its edge. In fairness, at first glance there’s not a lot here to snag the attention of folks eager to get back to their homes in Guilderland or Colonie. The tidy houses are unassuming; and the few in obvious disrepair are—for all their sad shabbiness—unremarkable. From the viewpoint through a passing windshield, this is just another nether neighborhood, one to pass through quickly on the way home at the end of a workday, or in a hurry to the denim sale at Old Navy.

One wonders, though, if the traffic pattern and pace will remain the same when the blue-and-gold markers arrive and are posted at each end of Rapp Road. Will people stop if the plans to convert the ramshackle structure closest to the mall into an information center and small museum come to fruition? Or will the cars continue to stream unknowingly through this 70-year-old African-American community, this recent addition to both the New York state and the National Registry of Historical Districts? Will they slow down to view the Promised Land?

“Yes, God led him here,” says Dickson of Elder Louis W. Parson, the Mississippi preacher who founded the Rapp Road Community in May 1930. It’s a simple faithful statement, but Dickson, a third-generation resident of the community, delivers it with a hint of resignation. Working with Jennifer Lemack, a research fellow at the New York State Museum, Dickson has dutifully investigated the history of the community, conducting interviews with original settlers, combing county records and traveling back to Parson’s point of origin in Shubuta, Miss. For all their methodical study, though, when it comes right down to it, there’s still the “Why Albany?” question. The settlement is in some ways so unlikely that divine guidance still works as well as any more academically acceptable explanation.

“During the Great Migration [of African-Americans out of the South between 1910 and 1940], there was the perception of greater racial equality in the North,” says Dickson, giving the backdrop for Parson’s own migration. (Lemack adds that the preacher, as a recipient of a Workman’s Compensation settlement for injuries suffered as either a logger or a railroad employee, may have felt himself to be a too- conspicuously well-off Southern black man.)

Standing in the shadow of the mall: Toliver House, the oldest Rapp Road residence. Photo: Chris Shields

So, Parson’s departure with his wife, Frances, in itself, makes sense. But rather than following the lure of decent wages in the factories of Chicago or another major metropolis, Parson made his way to Albany, for whatever private and/or inspired reason. Here, in Albany’s South End, he met a women’s prayer group with whom he founded the First Church of God and Christ. Very shortly thereafter, he began risky runs back to Shubuta to retrieve his congregation—carload after carload in his seven-person Buick. These missions required daring, stealth and sacrifice, as many of those whom Parson transported were deep in debt to local landlords and had to travel light, often leaving under cover of night. There were in fact warrants issued for Parson’s arrest.

“They put a bounty on him,” Dickson explains. “Why? Same reason as slavery: cheap labor. [The Southern blacks] worked in places where the landowner owned the whole county—that was the case with my own parents. They would go to get seed, and they would put that amount on the books. When your crop came in, you would go back and pay them whatever amount of seed money that you had borrowed. And many times when they went back they were told, ‘No, you owe more.’ ”

It was a desperate situation for the sharecroppers: “If you’re black and you’re in the South and a landowner says to the law that you owe them more money, you owe them more money. No matter what you say, no matter what you know the truth is. These people realized, ‘We’re being cheated, and we’re just in a different type of bondage than slavery. And they’re going to keep us here forever.’ ”

In retrospect, it’s easy to view Parson’s clandestine shuttle service as a lifeline, a motorized Underground Railroad. For many of the former residents of Shubuta, however, the transition would prove as difficult as the travel. At the time, it was a challenge for members of Parson’s congregation to feel at home in even this small city.

“Even though the situation was definitely much, much worse in the South, they started to go back,” Dickson says. “In the South End at the time they had all the brothels and the prostitutes—it was pretty rough place, back then.”

The lives of Parson’s followers were strictly church-centered; these were devout people, decidedly uncomfortable in the thick of the iniquity—the prostitution, gambling and boozing—of the red-light district. But it was the more subtle challenges to the ingrained habits of a formerly agrarian people that would lead to the establishment of the Rapp Road community.

“This is where the story becomes very different, very unique,” Dickson enthuses. “These particular people said, ‘We’re from the rural South; we don’t like the city.’ You know, they had to go to the store to buy food, they had to go to the store to buy clothes and everything else they needed. They were in culture shock. [In Mississippi] they had raised their own food, they had made their own clothes. So, they said, ‘We’re going to go back to the rural South, and do whatever it is we have to do.’ ”

After a pause, Dickson delivers the kicker: “And Elder Parson said, ‘OK, you stay here. I will find you that exact same thing here.’ ”

In the New York State Museum’s Crossroads gallery, Bound for the Promised Land: Albany’s Rapp Road Community takes up just a small nook between the enormous aerial shot of New York City and the impressive set of the Dreaming of Timbuctoo exhibit, which chronicles a long-gone African-American settlement in the Adirondacks. Spotlit on white walls, a series of narrative panels and photographs depicts the 70-year history of the community: There’s a grainy snapshot from the ’50s of community member Ralph McCann being baptised in the Hudson River by Elder Parson’s successor as pastor, Dr. William Wilborn; there’s a recent photo of one of the community’s annual family reunions (which, Dickson says, frequently gather upwards of 300 people); there are also two shots of startlingly similar houses taken last year.

They’re both bungalow-style homes showing some evidence of amateur—though skilled—carpentry; each is nestled among pines shooting up from sandy soil. One is slightly elevated on small risers; beside the other are the cultivated rows of an extensive vegetable garden, suggestive of a subsistence farm. The two are so much of a kind, it’s easy to imagine that the first home sits just beyond those rows. In reality, however they’re separated by some 1,300 miles: The former is a Shubuta home, the latter is one of the Rapp Road residences.

In 1930, Elder Parson delivered on his promise, purchasing a 14-acre plot in the Northeastern pine barrens we know as the Pine Bush that reproduced for his congregation the feeling of their rural homes in Mississippi. He sold off the land in parcels in order to pay back the borrowed purchase price ($400, plus interest), a practice his wife continued after his death in 1940. Between 1938 and 1963, 23 families bought properties along Rapp Road; today, the community is still inhabited by 18 of those original 23 families.

Despite increasing pressure from developers, the community has by and large managed to preserve its integrity (so far, they have lost only two plots to Pyramid Co., owners of Crossgates Mall). And Emma Dickson says that it is common practice for the younger members of the neighborhood to move back to Rapp Road, after youthful excursions, whenever houses become available. She herself returned after living in Detroit and downtown Albany; and her sister lives next door in the house they grew up in, the second house built on the property by their parents. That trend, and the election in 2002 of the Rapp Road Community to the state and national registries of historic districts, offers Dickson and other residents hope for the neighborhood’s future vitality.

Though the homes lining Rapp Road may never become a tourist destination on the scale of colonial Williamsburg, though motorists with full tanks may still hurtle through without slowing, and though some viewers may miss the small exhibit around the corner from the display of the tragic debris of Sept. 11 currently showing at the state museum, Dickson says she, Lemack and the community have accomplished something important by gaining those official designations.

Citing homes once located on the far side of Washington Avenue Extension where Crossgates Mall’s upper parking lot now sits, Dickson says, “After the Miller house was gone, I realized that someday they’re going to be saying, ‘We think there used to be houses over there.’ That’s when I began to think that if we don’t do something definite, soon and positive about this community it is going to disappear. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want this community to be just a rumor.”

“Now, it’s documented,” she affirms. “It’s there, it’s on the register. There is no saying, ‘Maybe it was there.’ There is no maybe.”

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