The African American pioneers who established this town were looking for a place for their families to live and prosper without fear of the oppression they faced in the South. In short, they wanted a place where they could live the American dream. Though the site they chose is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, it did have abundant water, fertile soil, and a railroad stop.
You may have heard of communities such as Nicodemus, Kansas, Greenwood, Oklahoma, also known as The Black Wall Street, and other towns with rich African American histories. But have you heard of the township of Allensworth?
The story of Allensworth goes much deeper than being the first town in California to be established, designed, financed, built, and governed by African Americans.
Here are a few things to know about Allensworth:
1. Who Was Allen Allensworth?
Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in 1842 in Kentucky, the youngest of 13 children born to Levi and Phyllis Allensworth. As a youth, he attempted to escape enslavement twice but was caught and punished.
Educating Blacks was something that was forbidden in Kentucky and other Southern states. Consequently, young Allensworth was sent away, sold many times, treated harshly, and even whipped when it was discovered he was being taught to read and write. The Civil War provided an opportunity for him to successfully escape from his circumstances.
Allensworth went on to become the first and only Black person to serve as a delegate from Kentucky in the Republican National Convention in both 1880 and 1884.
After being told there were no Black chaplains for the Black units in the Army, Allensworth petitioned President Grover Cleveland for the post. President Cleveland appointed him to the rank of chaplain and assigned him to the 24th Infantry Regiment, part of the Buffalo Soldiers. That association with the Buffalo Soldiers continues to this day.
By the time he retired in 1906, Allensworth had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, the first African American to achieve that status, and the highest-ranking Black man in the military at that time.
Col. Allensworth continued to move and shake. Upon moving to Los Angeles with his wife Josephine, he became the first pastor of Second Baptist Church in Monrovia, California. The many hats he wore during his lifetime included, at various times, minister, educator, politician, Buffalo Soldier, a serviceman in both the Army and Navy, jockey, restaurateur, speaker, publisher, and most famously, co-founder of the town that bears his name.
Col. Allensworth died in 1914 after getting off a streetcar in Monrovia and being struck in broad daylight by two men on a motorcycle. A memorial stands outside Second Baptist Church.
2. What Is Allensworth?
In establishing Allensworth, the mission of co-founders Professor William Payne, Dr. William H. Peck, Harry Mitchell, J.W. Palmer, and Col. Allensworth, was to “provide education, economic, and political opportunities for [African Americans] in California.” Additionally, Col. Allensworth wanted to provide a place where soldiers in America’s all-Black regiments could live. The teachings of Booker T. Washington heavily influenced the colonel, especially Washington’s philosophy of Black self-sufficiency; it was a driving force behind the establishment of the town.
The township was founded in 1908 and was originally named “Solito”, after the railroad stop. It was soon renamed “Allensworth.” Thus, Allensworth became California’s first Black community.
As the nascent town began to thrive, prospective residents bought some property in Allensworth sight unseen. Businesses included a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a bakery, a general store, a drug store, and a dairy. Agricultural products included sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa, grain, poultry, dairy cattle, and rabbits.
Notable Facts About The Community
- Allensworth had a school district. It was the first school district in California established by African Americans and still exists today.
- The schoolhouse was built entirely with funds donated by residents of the town. It ended up costing $5,000.
- The Mary Dickerson Memorial Library, named for Josephine Allensworth’s mother, was a branch of the Tulare County Free Library system.
- Allensworth had its own post office, voting precinct, and judicial district. Oscar Overr was elected Justice of the Peace, the first African American in California to hold that position.
- In its heyday, the town boasted a population of nearly 300 residents and brought in $4,000 to $5,000 a month; nearly $160,000 in today’s dollars.
Resident Oscar Overr said of the town, “It has passed the experimental and pioneering [stage], and, while it is still in its infancy, for many reasons it is the best proposition ever offered to Negroes in the state.” It could be said that Allensworth was a land of promise. For a while, it fulfilled that promise.
3. What Happened To The Town Of Allensworth?
It looked like Allensworth was on the right track to prosperity. There are a few explanations as to what happened, but what is clear is Allensworth began to suffer from problems with water. Then in 1914, the AT&SF railroad, which refused to hire Allensworth’s residents, intentionally bypassed Allensworth, instead adding a spur into Alpaugh, about 7 miles away. The move deprived the community of a vital means of transportation and commerce, effectively severing Allensworth’s lifeline.
The community then suffered an indescribable loss when Col. Allensworth was killed.
In quick succession, drought, the Great Depression, and residents moving away for school or work followed. When World War II began, even more residents moved away to work jobs in support of the war effort.
By the 1960s, the town had dropped from some maps. The park’s brochure notes that Allensworth was scheduled for demolition. Thankfully, the story of Allensworth does not end there.
4. Allensworth Became A State Historic Park
In 1969, Cornelius “Ed” Pope, a former resident, started a campaign to create a state historic site at Allensworth after realizing that California had no state parks dedicated to the history of California’s African American citizens. As a result of lobbying by Pope and others, the California Department of Parks and Recreation purchased land on the town’s original site in 1974. Plans for a park were approved, and on October 9, 1976, the dedication ceremony for Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park was held. Allensworth began to be called “The town that refused to die.”
Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is open year-round. On its grounds are around 22 restored or reconstructed structures from the original town spread across 240 acres, including Col. and Mrs. Allensworth’s house, the school, the Baptist church, the library, the hotel, and the railroad station master’s office.
Pro Tip: Plan on doing a fair amount of walking if you want to see everything. Bring comfortable walking shoes. You could also wait for one of the special events and take advantage of the shuttle that runs through the park.
5. ‘The Town That Refused To Die’ Is Experiencing A Renaissance
About 500 residents still live in the Allensworth area. The fight to secure Allensworth’s future continues. But there is good news:
California’s 2022-23 budget will provide some $40 million in funding for the revitalization of Allensworth. Of that, $28 million, which Senators Melissa Hurtado and Steven Bradford helped to secure, will go to a new visitor center.
Today, some 70,000 people a year visit the “cultural resource” that is Colonel Allensworth State Park. Most come during the annual special event days where docents attired in outfits of the period are on hand, members of different Buffalo Soldier units double as docents, and some of the buildings will be open to visitors.
Events scheduled for this year are:
- Black History Month Celebration — February 11, 2023
- Allensworth May Festival — May 20, 2023 (of the four annual events, this one is a bit less crowded)
- Juneteenth Celebration — June 10, 2023
- Annual Rededication — October 14, 2023
Other events include the Colonel Allensworth 5K Run/Walk for Health.
Pro Tip: Summer temps top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring a hat and sunscreen. Bring water or purchase water from a vendor during special events because naturally-occurring arsenic is present in Tulare County’s water supply.
6. A Walk Through Allensworth’s Past Can Lead You Into Allensworth’s Future
Thomas Ward’s story of how he got involved with Allensworth is quite inspiring. His first visit was as a member of a band invited to play at Allensworth. “When I arrived at the entrance of the park,” Ward says, “I was in awe of the place. I couldn’t help but look around at all the structures. I was truly amazed seeing how former slaves lived in California, setting out to create a town and life for themselves.” When it was time for his bus to leave, he wanted to stay. He promised he would return, a promise that he kept.
Subsequent visits and meetings with park organizers resulted in Ward’s company Crankin’ Time Cycling producing a cycling event called the Colonel Allensworth Century & Fun Ride. Ward says, “The event, along with helping it increase exposure, raised money and donated proceeds to the park’s non-profit, the Friends of Allensworth.”
Ward highly recommends people visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, calling it “a crown jewel in the state of California.”
Rev. Clarence Washington, Vice President of Friends of Allensworth, wants to get the youth more educated about and interested in Allensworth. He says Allensworth is looking especially for Black docents, but all are encouraged to volunteer.
For specific directions to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, visit the park’s website. Your GPS may show Allensworth in the city of Earlimart, California.
Contact the Friends of Allensworth for information about chartering buses to bring your group to Allensworth.
You can take Amtrak to Allensworth. Traveling by train allows you to arrive in much the same way as most of the original townspeople did.
Pro Tip: The Allensworth station/depot code is listed on Amtrak’s website as CNL. However, because it is a special stop, a search will not display any trains or times. Call Amtrak for details. This year marks the town of Allensworth’s 115th anniversary. Make plans to experience the realization and resurrection of an African American dream at Allensworth, “the town that refused to die.”
For more information on traveling to California, check out these articles: