By Paul Alan Rosen
A UAlbany student has succeeded in securing State Historic District designation for the Rapp Road African-American community in the Pine Bush. According to Professor of History Ivan Steen, this is the first culturally significant minority district to be so named. In January, the community won the national designation.
Jennifer Lemak, 28, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History, has been investigating the historical significance of the Rapp Road Community since the spring of 2000, when she was finishing her master’s in public history at UAlbany. The community is now the subject of her doctoral dissertation. She traveled to Shubuta, Miss., with two community members in November 2002 to conduct oral history interviews with people who did not migrate to Albany.
Originally from Elmira, N.Y., Lemak became interested in history at an early age because of her father, a high school history teacher.
Her recent studies have come about as a result of a seminar taught by professors Steen and Robert Dykstra. A research requirement for the class led Lemak to history curator Wes Balla, whom she worked with at the Albany Institute of History and Art; Balla suggested Lemak study the Rapp Road Community.
Since that time, Lemak has become deeply involved in that community. She completed an application for the New York State Historic Register that was presented to the New York State Preservation Society and passed in September 2002. Not only did Lemak succeed in convincing New York State of the significance of the Rapp Road Community; this area also received wider recognition after being voted onto the National Historic Register in January. A Woodrow Wilson Practicum Grant provided financial support for Lemak’s efforts.
Pastor Louis W. Parson of Shubuta, Miss., founded the Rapp Road Com-munity. Shortly after Parson moved to Albany in 1927, he established his own church (a branch of the First Church of God in Christ), which was originally located at 40 Franklin St. He began recruiting families from his hometown to join him in Albany. Albany’s main selling points were the opportunity for “higher wages,” and “the North’s reputation of racial equality,” according to Lemak.
Many families did join Parson but could not adjust to living in an urban environment on the south side of Albany. These families were used to rural surroundings and the sharecropping life back in Mississippi. Feeling out of place, some of the families returned to Shubuta. Parson knew he must act if he wished to keep his community in the North. In the significance statement Lemak wrote for the New York State Historic Register application, she noted, “On May 2, 1930, Louis Parson and William Toliver purchased a 14-acre tract of land from Charles Smith.” Another tract was also purchased on March 30, 1933. “This land was located in the western extension of the City of Albany in the Pine Bush.” Parson sold land exclusively to members of his church.
“Between 1942 and 1963, 23 African-American families bought tracts of land from Parson’s original land purchases. In 2001, 17 of the original families, including three first-generation residents, still lived on Rapp Road.
“Parson was repeatedly told by Albany authorities to stop bringing blacks to the area who did not have money, jobs, or houses. Not only did Parson continue bringing people to Albany until his death on Jan. 11, 1940,” but because most of these families were sharecroppers and indebted to their landlords, “it was necessary for Parson to pick migrants up on Saturday nights [in Shubuta],” and drive them all the way to Albany, Lemak wrote.
“They would not be missed until Monday morning because landlords knew most [of the black families] attended church all day on Sunday. Parson was helping these people escape from their bonds of debt, albeit in an illegal manner,” Lemak’s paper stated.
Today there is still a strong connection between the two communities. In fact, “Each year since 1957, the Rapp Road [African-American] Community celebrates at a giant family reunion held on Rapp Road, and several members of the community maintain ties with family and friends who still live in Mississippi. Every other year a ‘homecoming’ reunion is celebrated in Shubuta, Miss., for those who moved away. Rapp Road members are usually present at the event,” she wrote.
Not only are Rapp Road members usually present, but Lemak was invited to join them in November 2002. She traveled to Shubuta on a grant from the Initiatives For Women program with two other Rapp Road residents and had a chance to interview members of that community about their ties to Albany.
Lemak is expected to complete her Ph.D. by May 2004 and plans to keep in close contact with the residents of the Rapp Road Community.
So, the next time you plan to cut through that small residential area called Rapp Road on your way to Crossgates Mall, think about the history you are traversing. This is a neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, and if you listen hard enough, you just might hear Louis W. Parson saying, “Thanks, Jennifer,” as the contemporary residents of this community are doing today.