You Can’t Demolish Memories

A guest post by Barbara Lucas-Roberts, who fondly remembers the African-American community on Jefferson Street before her childhood home was demolished to make way for the Empire State Plaza.

I was 5 years old when my family moved into our first Jefferson Street apartment. My childhood memories are so vivid, and the Jefferson Street memories will be forever etched in my mind and heart.  As I write this narrative 65 years later, I still remember the sights, sounds, and all of the special neighbors. Jefferson Street was such a beautiful tapestry of people, dialects, music, and cuisine–truly a reflection of our shared Southern roots.

A family photo in the home of my parents’ best friends, Ralph and Alice Edwards, who lived up the block from us at 156 Jefferson Street. Courtesy Barbara Lucas Roberts.

My parents, Joseph and Marion Lucas, moved from Wake Forest, North Carolina to Albany, New York in the 1940s as part of the Great Migration. At the time, my maternal grandmother, Corean, and Aunt Evangeline were already living in Albany and had found work at Albany Medical Center. They reported back that jobs were plentiful. When Dad returned from service in the U.S. Army during World War 2, he married my mom, and together they migrated from the segregated South to Albany. Here they started our family. My older sister, Joanne Lucas Thomas, and I were both born in Albany, in 1946 and 1950 respectively.

One of my favorite Jefferson Street memories is of my Nana, who lived with my Uncle Michael across the street from us. When I was little, I would beg to spend the night with them–then in the middle of night, I would wake up and tell my Nana that I wanted to go back home. So she would dress me in my robe and slippers and take me by the hand back across the street to my parents’ home. 

My parents rented an apartment above Salvator Praga’s grocery store. My Nana lived across the street at 88 Jefferson. Courtesy Albany Institute.

I remember my Jefferson Street playmates and all the adult neighbors who watched over us. There were so many African American families–the McCargos, the McLaughlins, the Wilsons, the McGoughs, the Hamiltons, the Corleys, the Barneses, the Jordans, the Lumpkins. We all lived in the two blocks of Jefferson Street between Eagle and Swan streets that were destroyed for the Empire State Plaza. Our families were close knit, and our parents had a lot in common, even though they came from different parts of the South–North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia.

One of my oldest childhood friends was Velma McCargo. We were the same age, and she lived just a few doors up the block from me. I remember playing dolls and riding bikes with her. We bought penny candy from the little corner stores that dotted our neighborhood, and during the summer, we took Red Cross swimming lessons in Lincoln Park. We attended Union Missionary Baptist Church, where Mr. McCargo (Velma’s dad) was a deacon. We went to the same elementary, middle, and high schools. After graduation, we both received the same scholarship to Skidmore College and graduated in 1973 as part of the college’s first Academic Opportunity Program. Later, we were both blessed with a daughter and grandchildren. Velma recently passed, but the memories of our time together will forever bring me joy.

PS 24 class photo, 1962. I am third from the left in the second row. Velma stands in the center of the back row. Courtesy Barbara Lucas Roberts.

Our families all left the South both to escape the dark and dreadful segregation and to make a better life for themselves and their families. They brought with them a deep Christian faith and strong work ethic. Many found jobs in area hospitals and factories. Others worked for Allegheny Steel and the Watervliet Arsenal. My dad was a presser, who worked in dry cleaning establishments all around the Capital District–the Roxy, the Commodore, and Barry Sparks’ Rite Cleaners & Dyers. Even in his retirement years, my dad would still receive calls to see if he was available to “help out” when other pressers were on vacation. My mom stayed home to raise my sister and me. She also babysat the child of a working couple. That child, Randy McGough, a Jefferson Street playmate, is still a close family friend. We were blessed with wonderful parents who gave us a loving foundation.

The migrants brought with them their Southern dialect and culture. I remember the sounds of my childhood. Saturday nights on Jefferson Street, we listened to soul music, Nat King Cole, Brook Benton, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Aretha Franklin. We listened to gospel music too–Mahalia Jackson, Rev. James Cleveland, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.

My mom (right) with our next-door neighbor Julia Lawrence, 1962. Courtesy Albany Institute of History and Art.

As important as music was the southern soul food my family and the other migrants brought to Jefferson Street. The heavenly smells of collard greens and yams cooking, fish and grits, smothered chicken in homemade gravy with hot cornbread, biscuits or homemade yeast rolls suffused my childhood. The desserts were divine–three-layer coconut cake, banana pudding, peach cobbler, and my Grandma Corean’s caramel cake, made special for Thanksgiving. All of this food was cooked with soul and love!

I had one of the best childhoods, growing up on Jefferson Street surrounded by friends. They say, it takes a village, and we had that village. 

Once Jefferson Street was demolished, my playmates and their families were dispersed all over Albany. But we never lost the bonds forged on Jefferson Street.

To read more Great Migration stories, check out our Great Migration and the South Mall walking tour on Urban Archive.

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