Allen Allensworth (1842-1914) was once the highest ranking black officer in American history and founded the all-black town of Allensworth, California.
Born to slave parents in Louisville, Kentucky, Allensworth educated himself illegally and escaped from slavery at twenty by joining the army. During the Civil War, he was a civilian nurse in Nashville. A year later, he had joined the Navy serving on a gunboat in the Ohio River. By 1865, he had become a chief petty officer and then returned to Louisville, where he converted to the Baptist faith and joined the Fifth Street Church.
Educated at the Ely Normal School in Louisville and the Nashville Institute, Allensworth obtained a teacher’s certificate and, in 1868, began teaching at the Freedmen’s Bureau School in Christmasville, Kentucky. Three years later, he was ordained a Baptist minister and was named superintendent of Sunday Schools at the state Baptist convention. In 1875, Allensworth was appointed a missionary by the American Baptist Publication Society of Philadelphia. Allensworth was also a political activist and was a Republican elector from Kentucky in 1880 and a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1880 and 1884.
Two years later, President Grover Cleveland appointed him chaplain of the 24th Infantry. He served in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Montana, where he established an education program for enlisted men that was imitated around the country. During the Spanish-American War, Allensworth served as chaplain of the 24th Infantry in the Philippines. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel, becoming the highest ranking African-American at the time.
Upon leaving military service in 1880, Allensworth moved to Los Angeles, where he organized a company to help blacks migrate to California. Over the next six years, the town of Allensworth grew as a business center for farming and dairying. The town declined with the depletion of soil.
Allensworth was inspired by the notion to establish a self-sufficient, all-black California town — a place where blacks could live their lives free of racial discrimination. In 1908, the town of Allensworth was established about thirty miles north of Bakersfield. Settlers built homes, laid streets and put up public buildings. They established a church, organized an orchestra, a glee club and a brass band. Over the next six years, Allensworth grew as a business center for farming and dairying. It became a member of the county school district and regional library system and voting precinct, electing the first black Justice of the Peace in post-Mexican California. In 1914, the California Eagle newspaper reported that Allensworth consisted of 900 acres of deeded land worth more than $112,500 — which would be worth millions in today’s terms. During Allensworth’s golden age, numerous social and educational organizations flourished. Allen was an admirer of Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee was a source of inspiration for the creation of a self-sufficient black community in central California. In fact, Allen’s dream was that Allensworth would be known as the “Tuskegee of the West”. The town’s streets were all named after notable blacks or dedicated abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The dry and dusty soil made farming difficult and toxins seeped into the drinking water. Sadly, the town lost its founding water when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in Los Angeles in 1914. The town’s discouraged settlers drifted away in the next few decades and the town was reduced almost to a ghost town.
The only California town to be founded, financed and governed by blacks is now experiencing a renaissance as a state historic park. The park’s visitors center features a film about the site, and an annual re-dedication ceremony reaffirms the vision of the original pioneers. Allen Allensworth’s residence is preserved and furnished in the 1912 period style and contains items from his life in the service and ministry. The most important building, historically and in the memory of the Allensworth pioneers, is the schoolhouse. It was in use until 1972, and it is furnished as it would have been on a school day in 1915.
Concrete Loop features ‘Black History Spotlights’ each week honoring black people who have played pivotal roles in history. submissions are welcome.
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