Up The Road: Allensworth

Nov 1, 2017

Today we head up the road to Allensworth State Historic Park, between Visalia and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, the only town in California founded, financed, and governed by African Americans. It’s a bit remote. On the way you’ll wonder if you’re lost. But with some imagination you can experience the town when it was young and thriving. And feel the sadness of its passing.

Lt. Colonel Allen Allensworth
Credit Photo courtesy True West Archives, University of Texas at Austin

Colonel Allen Allensworth was an impressive man. Born a slave, he literally marched to freedom during the Civil War with the Union Army’s 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. When the 44th camped in Louisville, Kentucky, Allensworth donned an old uniform and slipped into formation. He later served two years in the the Navy, opened popular restaurants with his brother, taught in Freedman’s Bureau schools in Kentucky, became an ordained minister, and in 1880 and 1884 served as Kentucky’s only black delegate to Republican National Conventions.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Allensworth as chaplain of the 24th Infantry Regiment. While serving at Fort Bayard in New Mexico Territory, Allensworth wrote what became the standard Army manual for educating enlisted personnel. After 20 years of service, in 1906 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel—the first black officer to achieve that rank.

Just two years later Allensworth, a friend of Booker T. Washington, arrived in the San Joaquin Valley with four equally accomplished black men to establish a farming town and township, something of a Tuskegee Institute of the West.  They chose 800 acres of fertile land with artesian wells located on a railroad corridor. The intention was utopian, but also pragmatic, a community dedicated to the values of education and economic independence and to the idea that blacks could live in equality with whites.

The restored buildings here—even two rare, restored boxcars where the railroad station agent once lived—show how successful this American dream was, initially. Allensworth was agricultural, home pasture for dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys, and Belgian hares, and surrounded by fields of sugar beets, alfalfa, wheat, and cotton. The school was the center of community life, but there was also a church, library, general stores, hotel, livery stable, machine shop, and more. Not to mention family homes—included the striking Allensworth home, built from a Sears and Roebuck catalog kit.

The general store
Credit Photo by Matthew Lee High

Lt. Col. Allensworth dreamed of starting a major technical institute for black students—California’s Tuskegee—but the state legislature rejected the proposal. His plan might have succeeded eventually, but in 1914 Allensworth was struck and killed by a motorcyclist while stepping off a street car in L.A. Soon after, his American dream literally turned to dust, as ag growth elsewhere in the valley lowered the water table. The water Allensworth did have, when wells were drilled, was increasingly contaminated with alkali salts and even arsenic. People gradually moved away.

But you can’t really say the dream died. Since state park restoration began several decades ago, dog-friendly Allensworth is pretty lively. February brings Black History Month events; May, the annual Allensworth Old Time Jubilee, complete with living history and special tours; and October, annual rededication celebrations. There’s an RV and tent campground, plus a separate picnic area. And, with a little planning you and yours—even entire school classes, or other groups—can come and go by train, because the park is an Amtrak flag stop. That Colonel Allensworth thought of everything.

To volunteer, donate, or otherwise support the ongoing restoration and celebration of Allensworth, contact Friends of Allensworth.