By Anne Hayden
Beverly Bardequez has been watching her community be slowly chipped away by modern development, so she and other members of her Rapp Road neighborhood are rallying to protect what is left.
Most recently, Daughters of Sarah Senior Community, on Washington Avenue Extension, bought a piece of property, including a house built by one of the first pastors of the community’s church, and wanted to tear down the shabby building.
Rapp Road, which is partly in the town of Guilderland and partly in the panhandle of Albany, was settled by a group of black sharecroppers from Shubuta, Miss., when they migrated north during the Great Depression.
The faith-based community was initially made up of 28 families, and nine of those families’ descendants still remain.
Bardequez is the third generation of her family to live on Rapp Road, in one of the original houses, with her daughter and grandson, fourth- and fifth-generation of the original settlers.
Desperate to preserve the foundations of her heritage, she mobilized her neighbors, and they are in the process of formally organizing and becoming a not-for-profit.
“We already have a charter,” said Bardequez.
The Rapp Road community was recognized as a New York State Historic District and placed on the National and Historic Registry in 2002, after Jennifer Lemak, then a graduate student at the University at Albany, researched its history for her dissertation, and partnered with community leader Emma Dickson — Bardequez’s aunt — to write the nomination.
Through Dickson, Lemak gathered enough information about the community to write a book, Southern Life, Northern City: The History of Albany’s Rapp Road Community.
Pastor Louis W. Parsons, a traveling preacher, moved to Albany from Shubuta, Miss., in 1927. He started his own church in Albany, The First Church of God in Christ, and, to increase membership, he traveled back and forth between Albany and Mississippi, driving people north in his car. In addition to increasing membership in his parish, Parsons was helping people escape the cruel landowners under which they worked as sharecroppers.
The southerners first settled in Albany’s South End, but it was too urban for them, since they were used to tall pine trees and open spaces. They disliked the crime, prostitution, and drug use in the city.
Parsons bought 22 acres of land running from Gipp Road across
what is now Washington Avenue Extension, and sold parcels only to members of his church.
“The biggest difference was, they were used to red clay down south, and here we have red sand,” said Bardequez.
She was born on Rapp Road in 1949, and remembers her grandparents raising chickens and pigs, picking vegetables from the garden for meals, and attending weekly church services and noon-day prayer meetings.
“When we first came here, no one else was interested in the area,” Bardequez said. “Slowly, with limited our resources, we cultivated the land.”
The houses were all built — literally — by hand, she said, with neighbor helping neighbor. The foundations were dug with shovels, not with machines.
“There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that went into this soil,” said Bardequez. “There is a direct link to our settling here with that house,” she said, referring to the house now owned by Daughters of Sarah.
The house belonged to William Wilborn, who took over the community’s church after Parsonsdied. Wilborn, who eventually became a bishop, lived in the house, as did two generations of his family.
“When the highway came through, it brought the University at Albany and Crossgates Mall with it,” said Bardequez. “They wanted to expand, and grab every piece of land they could — they were like wolves circling.”
Daughters of Sarah, which is located behind the Rapp Road community, has been buying pieces of property to the south of the neighborhood over the past several years, and the property with the Wilborn house is the first one it purchased directly in the community.
“We’re saying no, this is our property, this is our legacy, and we want to preserve it,” said Bardequez. “We don’t want to impede progress, we just want them to leave our community alone.”
“The national registry is really an honorary listing, and doesn’t provide much protection unless public funding is being used to build on historically designated property, “ said Susan Holland, executive director of the Historic Albany Foundation. “The real preservation happens when you are designated locally.”
Holland has acted as a mediator between the Daughters of Sarah and the Rapp Road community, providing the Daughters of Sarah with information about historic properties and why it is important to preserve them.
“The fact is that the parcel of land was on the market a few years ago, and Daughters of Sarah decided, in the interest of building buffers, and for what might come in the future, to buy it,” said Mark Koblenz, chief executive officer of Daughters of Sarah.
He said the house on the land was in “fairly poor condition,” and thought it would need to be torn down because of structural problems.
“To have someone live in it, or for it be to useable, would take a lot of renovation,” Koblenz said. “We are not in a position to spend tons of money to renovate and repair.”
Bardequez said the Rapp Road community offered to buy the property back from Daughters of Sarah, but hadn’t received a response to the offer yet, as of the last meeting on Feb. 20.
“Nothing has been definitively decided, one way or another,” said Koblenz this week. “There has been some discussion of buying the property back and that is being considered, along with other options.”
“Daughters of Sarah has been wonderful to work with,” said Holland. “They are willing to sit down, and they are open to discussion and ideas, which you don’t see that often.”
“We definitely understand the history that the community comes from, but the buildings themselves are not historical — they’re not Colonial or anything,” said Koblenz. “But, our interest is to find a way to work with the community to meet their goals and our goals.”
Bardequez is hopeful that, in the future, any land that goes on the market will be purchased by people within the Rapp Road community, or even by the community as a whole.
“If property becomes available, we need to be able to take ownership,” she said. “We are trying to get third- and fourth-generation to invest in the community.”
“I don’t think Daughters of Sarah realized what they had when they bought the property,” said Holland. “They just didn’t know.”
She said she hoped the community would be able to get designated as a local historic property.
“There is so much pressure right now as far as developers encroaching,” she said. “This is of special significance because most historic registers are based on white history, white men’s history, actually, and we would like to see some diversity.”
Koblenz said Daughters of Sarah would continue to meet with both Holland and residents of Rapp Road, and indicated that, “Nothing is going to happen while we’re discussing things with people; we are not moving ahead with plans.”
“We are fighting tooth and nail to let them know we are here and we’re not going anywhere,” concluded Bardequez. “We have a stake in our community.”