The Promised Land
A portion of Albany held promise during the Depression for black families in Mississippi
By PAUL GRONDAHL
They called it "the Holy Land,'' a church-centered, African-American settlement along Rapp Road on the western edge of Albany in the Pine Bush.
The northern migration of two dozen black families from the cotton fields of Shubuta, Miss., began at the height of the Great Depression. The people were lured by the promise of a better life and the Pentecostal preachings of the First Church of God in Christ and its charismatic Albany pastor, Louis Parson.
The families initially lived briefly in Albany's South End, near their church, [then located at 79 Hamilton Street], and now known as the "Wilborn Temple" [located] at the corner of Jay and Swan streets in the shadow of the Empire State Plaza.
But urban living did not entirely suit them. They were used to living off the land. The pull of open space and room to grow vegetables and raise animals soon drew them out to Rapp Road, where Parson sold church members what were then rural plots from acreage he owned there.
As part of a Black History Month program, Rapp Road resident Emma Dickson and historian Stefan Bielinski will trace the history of the settlement in an informal discussion today titled The Promised Land: From Mississippi to the South End to Rapp Road.''
"I'll tell some of the stories passed down to us,'' said Dickson, who was born in 1944 at 22 Rapp Road. Her parents had purchased the lot in 1939, and built a bungalow with their own labor a few years later.
Dickson's late parents, Leola and Alfred Woodard Sr., were among 22 black families who settled in the '30s and '40s along that section of Rapp Road running between Western and Washington avenues - hemmed in today by Home Depot, Crossgates Mall, a condominium complex and the corporate parks of Washington Avenue Extension.
The Woodards and others fled the poverty and grind of Shubuta's sharecropping system, where many blacks in the '30s still remained indebted to white landowners.
In Albany, Alfred Woodard Sr. found work as a porter in downtown Albany hotels and in the old United Traction bus garage on Broadway. He walked to and from work from the family's residence in the South End. They sacrificed and saved. When the Rapp Road land became available in 1939 and they had enough money to buy a plot, Dickson said her parents felt as if they'd reached "the Holy Land!''
"My parents came looking for a better life and they found it on Rapp Road,'' said Dickson, the youngest of eight children. "We worked the land and grew corn, collard greens, okra, peas, squash. My mom did all the canning,'' Dickson recalled. Her parents and others on Rapp Road also raised cows, chickens, and pigs. The roads in that area, Rapp and Gipp, are named for white families who had pig farms in the vicinity early during the 20th century.
Bielinski, who directs the Colonial Albany History Project and has written about the city's earliest African-American residents, got interested in the Rapp Road story in an attempt to bridge a gap in his narrative between the 18th and 20th centuries. "This helps me fill in some of the huge gulf over 200 years about what happened to Albany's black community from colonial times to today,'' Bielinski said. "In the 1820s, Albany had a substantial African ancestry population. But that fell to a small percentage by World War I. |And then we get the migration from Shubuta and the South . . .'' he said.
Bielinski has been piecing together a history from documentary and printed sources and from interviews and discussions with various members of the Woodard and McCann clans, who settled Rapp Road and helped form the core of Wilborn Temple. "I'm a community historian, and Albany's neighborhoods have always interested me,'' Bielinski said. "Rapp Road is about as far-flung as an Albany neighborhood can be. But that area is also tied deeply into the black community of the city.''
Many Albany people feel a special kinship with Rapp Road. The award-winning actress Charlayne Woodard (an Albany native who is Emma Dickson's neice) described spending summers on Rapp Road farms in her play, "Pretty Fire.'' A McCann-Woodard family reunion draws as many as 300 people from around the country to Rapp Road each summer.
The Rapp Road settlement has weathered suburban sprawl, development's traffic congestion, and the loss of third-generation family members. Yet, descendants of 17 of the original 22 families still live on the road, Dickson said.
Dickson, who has nine grandchildren, runs a group family day care on Rapp Road. She didn't realize the special quality of the place until she moved to Detroit for a brief period.
"Home is what brought me back,'' said Dickson, who returned in 1978 and built a raised ranch next door to her parents' modest bungalow. One of Dickson's nieces discovered the same lesson and moved back to Rapp Road from Clifton Park a few years ago. A return migration of young families is slowly building. For those responding to the tug of home, it's still "the Holy Land,'' even after all these years.