Established in 1908 by a former slave as an idealistic community dedicated to Booker T. Washington’s principles of self-help and self-determination, this Central Valley utopia was the first all-African-American township in California founded and financed by black citizens.
In 1974 California State Parks purchased land within the historical townsite of Allensworth, and it became Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. Today a collection of lovingly restored and reconstructed early 20th-century buildings—including the Colonel’s house, historic schoolhouse, Baptist church, and library—once again dots this flat farm country, giving new life to the dreams of these visionary pioneers. The founder of the town site of Allensworth, Colonel Allen Allensworth, was born a slave in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 7, 1842. In the spring of 1854 he was sold “down river” for having attempted to learn to read and write, something Blacks were prohibited by law from doing in the south.
After some trading by slave dealers, he was taken to New Orleans, and bought by a slaveholder to become a jockey. The Civil War started, and when the Union forces neared Louisville, Allensworth found his chance for freedom. He joined the Navy and when he was discharged, he had achieved the rank of first class petty officer. In 1871, he was ordained as a Baptist minister and entered the Baptist Theological Institute at Nashville. While serving at the Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati, he learned of the need for African American chaplains in the armed services, and got an appointment as Chaplain of the 24th Infantry. He was the first African American ever to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After retiring, Colonel Allensworth traveled extensively throughout the mid-western and mid-eastern states lecturing on the need for Afro-Americans to initiate programs of self-help so that they might become economically, socially, culturally, and politically self-sufficient. Noticing that hundreds, if not thousands, of Blacks were migrating to California to avoid the de jure segregation policies and practices of the south and the de facto discriminatory policies and practices of the north, Colonel Allensworth also decided to go west.
Colonel Allensworth and his colleagues were convinced that the only way blacks would be able to live with some semblance of freedom and dignity was to build their own town. They hoped to create a place where blacks could own property and otherwise achieve their full economic potential, free from discriminatory laws and practices of the time.
On June 30, 1908, they formed the California Colony Home Promoting Association. They selected an area in Tulare County because it was fertile, there was plenty of water, and the land was available and inexpensive. They first bought 20 acres, and later, 80 more. The little town with a big vision grew rapidly for several years — to more than 200 inhabitants, by 1914. The rapid growth of Allensworth necessitated the establishment of public services. The first of these was the Allensworth City Water Company, which was established on December 8, 1908.
The next service which was started in the community was the Allensworth School District. This two room school was built in 1912, replacing the smaller schoolhouse that Josephine Allensworth purchased and had remodeled to become the town’s public library. Built in 1912, the Allensworth Schoolhouse was the biggest building in town. The children of the Allensworth community attended school here through the eighth grade. Graduation included impressive ceremonies and was a major event for the town. The building also served as a community center, assembly hall, polling place and church. The schoolhouse was considered the the best in the Central Valley at that time, with two classrooms, two cloakrooms, two dressing rooms, and a stage.
Warren Carter, his wife Mariah, and their twenty two year old son Elmer came to Allensworth in 1910. Upon arrival, Mr. Carter and Elmer built this house and a livery stable northwest of their home.
Elmer ran the family owned livery business, providing horses and vehicles for traveling visitors. There were over 800 acres dedicated to agriculture. The community grew alfalfa, grain, sugar beets and raised chickens, turkey, dairy cattle, and Belgian hares.
Volunteer guide Emmett Harden, who incidentally was dressed as a Buffalo Soldier, took time to speak with me about his personal ties to the town, including his father-in-law’s work to get it established as a state park. He’s from Sacramento, and like many of the African American volunteers, wanted to be sure that they were on hand to share their history.
Colonel Allen Allensworth and his wife Josephine, built one of the community’s first homes on this site shortly after the town was established. Colonel and Mrs. Allensworth bought the lot in the Fall of 1910 from the Pacific Farming Company. The residence was built in 1911. It was purchased from Sears-Roebuck and was made of prefabricated materials and shipped in sections and assembled at the building site. While the primary construction material was wood, there were many architectural refinements that made the home a model during its day.
The colony thrived at first, with a 75-cents-a-night hotel, restaurants, general stores, a library, a girls’ glee club, a theater club and a debating society, and its own branch of the N.A.A.C.P. “Of all the all-black towns of the period, none were as well-conceived,” said Dr. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Grand plans included a vocational school that would be the Tuskegee of the West. But the colony’s troubles soon began. There were legal disputes with the white-owned company that sold Mr. Allensworth’s association the land over promised water allotments from wells. By the time they were resolved, the water table had dropped precipitously. The Santa Fe railroad, which stopped on the land bought by Mr. Allensworth, refused to change the name on the local depot, then called Solita, claiming Allensworth was too long to fit on the sign. In 1914, the railroad bypassed Allensworth entirely, essentially strangling its economy. Perhaps the biggest blow came later that year when Mr. Allensworth died after being struck by a motorcycle driven by two white youths — an “accident” that is still being researched by historians. By the 1960s, arsenic contamination in the water had turned the place into a ghost town.
The first residence built in Allensworth was the Ashby house. John Ashby, his wife Vena, and their son Louis moved here in 1909. Mr. Ashby worked as section boss for the Santa Fe Railroad. The Ashbys lived in their house until 1915, when they moved to the town of Bowles, near Fresno, California. The house was rented to Norvin Powell, his wife and baby for about a year. A fire destroyed the house. Fortunately, the Powell family safely escaped the blaze. The Ashbys also ran a small dairy with 10 or 12 cows. A dairy barn was built on their property to accommodate this business.
Wiley Howard bought two lots here and built a small house in early 1915. Many of the Allensworth residents recalled that the house served mainly as temporary lodging. Some of the occupants were newcomers to the town waiting for their homes to be built. Others “would come and stay a week or a month, and would be gone.” Wiley Howard sold the property to L.C. Robinson in 1945. The Robinsons moved into the house and constructed an additional room to the east for their growing family. The Robinsons lived here until 1970, when California State Parks bought the property. The house was in poor condition and was reconstructed on its original site. All materials which could be salvaged from the original home have been incorporated into the new structure.
Amtrak trains stop in front of the State Park during Black History Month celebrations in February, the Allensworth Jubilee in May and in honor of Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, ceremonies marking the end of slavery in June or with a group of 20 or more (you will need a exact head count for pre-approval), and several weeks ahead of time, Amtrak can stop at Allensworth and let you off right at the State Parks entrance.
These young ladies actually lived in Allenworth, so it was refreshing to hear their story and not the California State Park’s version of it. When I asked if I could take a photo of them, I began snapping and the older lady on the right decided she didn’t want her walker in the photo, so she removed it, struck her signature pose and made my day.
It was so awesome to see children (and adults) learning about the history of Allensworth as I walked through these incredible spaces. I grew up only 30 miles away from here and don’t remember ever hearing anything about it or its role and importance in black history.
Frank Milner arrived in Allensworth from the Bay Area in 1911 and set up his first barbershop in a small frame house just west of this location. In 1914, with volunteers from the community, he constructed a concrete block structure similar to the reconstructed building on the site.
Milner’s Barbershop played an important part in early town life. The pioneer women of the community stated that the men would meet here to discuss “all manner of agreements and disagreements.” The community band, organized by Joshua Singleton, also practiced in the shop. By 1922, Frank Milner had closed his business and moved to Tulare, California, where he opened another barbershop. His new business continued for another 25 years. Many of his Allensworth neighbors came to Tulare as customers.
In 2008, Allensworth, California’s most important monument to black culture and self-sufficiency, was threatened when two mega-dairies attempted to build on neighboring land across state Highway 43. People who cherished Allensworth — because it holds personal memories, because they have family reunions and historical celebrations there or just because of its symbolism — feared the smell and flies from dairy operations would’ve driven away the park’s estimated 10,000 annual visitors. Previous plans for land close to the park have included a turkey farm and an industrial food grease dump. Luke Cole, director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said such land uses were “about as close to intentional discrimination as you can see.” In recent years, the environmental impact of mega–dairies on the San Joaquin Valley, with some of the country’s worst air quality, has led to lawsuits and a push for tougher regulations. Concerns include air pollution resulting from waste lagoons and the contamination of aquifers. “It’s not the dairy itself — it’s the position of the dairy,” Mrs. Royal said. “Especially in hot and windy times, it’s a stench out of this world. Nobody will want to come picnicking or celebrating in the park.” Fortunately, the dairy was never built and the State Park was able to get a resolution drawn up that would prevent any future development along the Parks borders.
Colonel Allensworth donated this property for a church to the Northern California Baptist Convention in August 1914. The Colonel’s tragic death a month later spurred the community to build the church. Construction began in 1915, under the direction of Reverend J.L. Allen, a missionary pastor for the Baptist group. Reverend Allen led an impressive dedication of the completed church in March of 1916. Prior to the buildings demolition in 1967, the First Baptist Church had served its congregation for over forty years, providing a place of worship and a gathering place for graduations, weddings, and funerals.
It later became the most significant reconstruction project undertaken by California State Parks in the 1990s. The interior of the Baptist church features a stunning stained glass window in a design known as the “Creator’s star.”
About 150 families, most of them Latino, live in present-day Allensworth, about 15 miles from Delano, the nearest city. Most are low-income, retired or migrant workers and their families. Many live in trailers. The community has a small church but no stores and no gas station. About 100 students attend the Allensworth School. If you ever plan on making a trip out to see Allensworth, I highly recommend you do so during one of their events in order to get the full experience.