EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a month-long series about noteworthy black Americans in Everett, taken from vignettes written by former City Clerk Michael Matarazzo in his book ‘They Came from Everett.’ The histories of many black residents of Everett might surprise readers, as many of their stories have never been fully told. There are judges, former slaves who become hotel operators, football players and a former ambassador. It is hoped our readers enjoy these pieces as much as we did. Matarazzo’s book is available at bookblues.com.
There is a saying that “If you worry about who gets the credit, nothing will ever get done.”
Rev. Dr. Albert R. Sampson has taken that motto almost to an extreme. While those “who were there” certainly recognize his role in the struggle for civil rights, history continues to slight his influence.
Al Sampson grew up across the street from Baldwin Avenue Park. When his mother was “violated” by a doctor in Melrose, his family fell apart and he was sent to live with his mother’s brother, Paul, and his wife, Mildred, at 13 Baldwin Avenue.
The Baldwin Avenue Park area was a close-knit area filled with memories that still resonate with the people who grew up there. Eighty-year old Stanley Ruggiero (Valley Street) still remembers the day that his father, Frank, bought a two-wheeled bike for him from the Pearsons (Baldwin Avenue) and no one can forget Frank’s not-so-secret Sunday morning bar in the cellar of their brick three-family house. Folks who grew up in that area still refer to the streets divided by Main Street as Upper and Lower Baldwin, Winslow and Clark Streets.
Baldwin Park, officially named Lt. Harold Wasgatt Park after an Everett soldier killed in action during WWI, was a beehive of activity. The kids, most of whom had parents from Southern Italy, Newfoundland, Ireland and African-Americans who migrated from the southern United States, spent their youthful hours there playing basketball, stickball, football or just running around being kids.
It was at the Park that Al Sampson and Al Sciarappa became friends. People in the neighborhood seldom saw one without the other and referred to them as “Al and Al” or simply “the Als.” They would remain close friends until Sampson went off to college and Sciarappa became a fixture at Tony Ventura’s Everett Sporting Goods.
The ethnically diverse neighborhood was a gastronomical delight as evidenced by the Sampson’s house, alone. On any given day, the aromas emanating from the two-family house at 13 Baldwin Ave. could include Mildred’s southern fried chicken or Connie Frangello’s eggplant parmesan; both dishes they often shared with each other.
Like this author, Al was a stutterer and longed to be able to express himself clearly and without the hampering stammer. As a student at the Parlin Junior High School, Al worked with the teachers there to conquer his stuttering and an orator was born. Before leaving for the high school, Al would become the first African-American to win that school’s annual oratory award.
Al continued to grow as an orator and jumped at every chance to display his newly-developed talent. Those opportunities usually presented themselves at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Malden where Al would often be called on as a reader. It would also be there that he received his call to the ministry.
Licensed as a minister by local legend Pastor Earl Lawson of Emmanuel Baptist, Al was encouraged to continue his education at Shaw University in Raleigh, NC. While he was not naïve to the reality of race relations in America, the move from Baldwin Avenue to North Carolina was an epiphany for him and Al decided he could not stand on the sidelines in this fight. Al became a leader and served as student body president at Shaw as well as leading the college’s chapter of the NAACP. He was also active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee which was founded at Shaw University.
In April of 1960, Al and fellow student James A. Fox attempted to be served at the lunch counter at a McCrory-McLellan store in Raleigh. The two were arrested and charged with trespassing. They were found guilty in City Court and again on appeal before the Superior Court. Six years later the United States Supreme Court set aside those convictions.
In 1961, a full four years prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he managed the successful campaign of John Winters, who became the first African-American City Councilor in the City of Raleigh.
After graduation from Shaw University, he attended the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. While in Atlanta, he served as the executive vice-president of the Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP. It was in that capacity that Al would come into contact with one of the icons of the segregationist movement – Lester Maddox.
Maddox owned a restaurant on Hemphill Avenue near the Georgia Tech campus called the Pickrick Restaurant. Maddox made it clear that, despite President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, he was not going to desegregate his restaurant. On August 11, 1964, Albert Sampson, Rev. Albert Dunn and Rev. Charles Wells arrived at the Pickrick and sought to enter and be served. Maddox ordered his African-American employees to block the entrance to the restaurant. Maddox then got into a verbal altercation with Sampson calling him a Communist and clearly displaying, while never drawing, his holstered pistol. Maddox, who was ordered by the federal court to desegregate and had his stay of the order rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, told the trio that, “You dirty Communists will never get a piece of fried chicken here.”
Through it all, Sampson and his associates maintained their decorum and commitment to non-violence and in deference to the precarious situation in which the African-American employees were placed, they did not push the issue and left the premises. The point was made for all to see as the incident was widely covered by the media. Maddox would eventually sell the restaurant rather than desegregate.
In 1966 while a member of the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Sampson asked Dr. Martin Luther King if he would ordain him into the ministry. Dr. King agreed and now Rev. Albert Sampson became one of only three men so ordained by Dr. King.
Rev. Sampson continued to work with Dr. King on initiatives throughout the nation. In Cleveland in 1967, he directed that city’s four-point program instituted by Dr. King to create jobs, improve police-community relations, organize tenants and encourage voter registration. As SCLC Project Director under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he played an important role in the campaign for the election of Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, Cleveland, Ohio.
The assassination of Dr. King in April of 1968 was a deep and personal blow to Rev. Sampson. He had lost a colleague, a friend, a mentor and a brother. He had been with him only 48 hours earlier.
Even with the loss of Dr. King, Rev. Sampson knew that the struggle must continue. Within days, he was back to organizing the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. Then it was the garbage strike in Atlanta where Rev. Sampson was left with the unenviable task of explaining the absence of Dr. King’s successor the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
Rev. Sampson continued to speak out on issues pertaining to civil rights, but his emphasis began to shift to the need for economic development in the black community. Jobs, black-owned business opportunities and home-ownership were becoming his focus. Back in Everett, African-Americans in the Baldwin Ave. Park area now owned the homes that they once rented and in some cases their children were becoming second-generation owners. Rev. Sampson wanted this possibility for all people. As a result, he brought the first model affordable home to Chicago’s West Side in a joint venture working with the Amish Community of Nappannee, Indiana.
When he joined entertainers James Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr. and other prominent African-Americans including football legend Jim Brown in endorsing President Nixon in 1972, the backlash was swift and vicious. Rev. Sampson, however, was pragmatic; Nixon was going to win and often lost in the debate was the fact that Nixon, as a Congressman, Senator and Vice-President, had a strong record on civil rights. Nevertheless, one can argue that old grudges die hard and Rev. Sampson’s legacy may have suffered unjustly as a result.
While others sought the limelight, Rev. Sampson sought results. He shared Dr. King’s ability to communicate with activists and business leaders, bankers and tenants, young and old and all races. While obviously aware of his oratorical skills, he saw no point in giving a great speech on Sunday if it did not result in action or inspiration on Monday.
Rev. Sampson has been labeled the “Forgotten Warrior” in the fight for civil rights and only recently has his role in the struggle been truly recognized. The man who challenged Lester Maddox, who endured ill treatment at the infamous Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi, who marched and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and who for decades has been a champion for civil rights for all is finally being recognize for his contribution.
For more than three decades, he has been Pastor of the Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago, where he continued to feed the souls of his community while fostering in the community a recognition of the importance of economic development, opportunity and growth. As the founder and president of Farmers Agribusiness Resource Management (FARM), he produced a marriage between Black Farmers down South and Black consumers up North, including farmers in Senegal and other parts of Africa as well as farmers in Illinois and the South.
In 2004, a granite marker that bears his name was included in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta, that was created to give recognition to those courageous soldiers of justice who sacrificed and struggled to make equality a reality for all.
Rev. Albert R. Sampson of Everett is forgotten no more.