Realization and Resurrection of an African American Dream

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth portrait with his vision for the Town of Allensworth (1972-03-15) by Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Although many pioneers came to California in search of riches, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth came to the state in a quest for liberty.

In 1908, he created Allensworth as an African American community in southern Tulare County – a community that would allow its residents to work and flourish without fear of discrimination. Within a few years, it was a prosperous Central Valley town.

Yet due to tragic and outside forces, within another decade Allensworth began a steady decline. By the time the California Department of Parks and Recreation became interested in preserving the town's history in the late 1960s, it was no longer even on some maps.

African American civic leaders and scholars championed the historic value of the town, and through their efforts, the ideals of Allensworth endure.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth portraits (1895/1906) by California State Parks. Image 090-2215, Image 090-2237California State Archives

Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in 1842 in Kentucky. Despite discriminatory laws and societal pressures, he learned to read and write. His third escape attempt was successful, and in 1862 he joined the 44th Illinois Volunteers Infantry Regiment, a Union unit near Louisville. He transferred to the Union Navy the following year, and by the end of the Civil War had reached the rank of first-class Petty Officer.

Allensworth attended college in Kentucky, studied theology, and was ordained as a minister in 1871. In 1886, President Cleveland appointed him Chaplain to the segregated 24th Infantry Regiment, known as a unit of the Buffalo Soldiers, at the rank of Captain.

As Chaplin, not only did he seek to nurture his troops' spiritual selves, but their educational and societal responsibilities as well. After twenty years of service, which included going to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, the highest military rank achieved by an African American at that time.

Reverend Allen Allensworth promotional portrait and lecture subject list (1889) by Courtesy of California State Parks. Image 090-2201, 090-2200California State Archives

Upon retirement in 1906, Allensworth and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he soon became well known for his stirring speeches on self-improvement and politics.

Numerous newspapers throughout the West Coast publicized his orations on the "Five Manly Virtues" and self-determination, and he frequently shared the stage with prominent national politicians. Allensworth spoke strongly of the need for African Americans to achieve prosperity through thrift, self-betterment, and hard work.

While on the lecture circuit, he discussed with William Payne, an assistant school principal, the effects of racism and segregation on African American lives. They decided to put theory into practice by creating a community in which solely African Americans would live, work, and flourish together.

Articles of Incorporation for the California Colony and Home Promoting Association (1908-07-15) by Secretary of State Records, Corporations (#54355), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

In the records of the Secretary of State at the California State Archives are the incorporation documents for the California Colony and Home Promoting Association.

Founded in 1908 by Allensworth, Payne, J.W. Palmer, W.H. Peck, and Harry Mitchell, the goals of the association were to purchase land, lay out a town and surrounding farms, and resell the lots to African Americans who would create a community "favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty."

The Association chose an area approximately 30 miles north of Bakersfield where the land was inexpensive and the water appeared plentiful. They named it Allensworth.

Tract of California Colony and Home Promoting Association: Town of Allensworth (1929) by Public Utilities Commission Records, Administration Division Records, Formal Complaints (Cases), Case No. 2699: George P. Black vs. Allensworth Rural Water Company, California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

The town planners named its avenues after prominent African Americans, such as Attucks and Sojourner Streets, and also Civil War heroes, Lincoln and Grant. They also created Booker T. Washington Park.

African Americans from around California and the country came to settle among its tree-lined streets and grassy vistas.

Profile map of the Allensworth railway station (1912-06-30) by Railway Commission Records, Railroad Survey Records, Profile Maps (F3725:13-2), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Cattle, chickens, grain, and sugar beets grew over the 900 acres of deeded land.

The A.T. and S.F. Railway Company stop at Allensworth served as its main artery for shipping the fruits of its citizens' labors.

Allensworth Free Library by Annie R. Mitchell History Room (tca0022, tca0023, tca0447), Tulare County LibraryCalifornia State Archives

The town had its own hotel, drug store, and library.

In 1914, its citizens elected the state's first African American Justice of the Peace, Oscar Overr.

Philanthropic, civil, and social organizations such as the Girls’ Glee Club, Theater Club, and Debate Club were formed.

Issue of the promotional "The Sentiment Maker" newspaper (1912-05-15) by Courtesy of the Annie R. Mitchell History Room, Tulare County Library, Visalia, California, Ephemera CollectionCalifornia State Archives

Word of Allensworth's success spread nationwide. Newspapers from around the country took notice and touted Allensworth's prosperity and development.

Lieutenant Colonel Allensworth also published The Sentiment Maker, a local newspaper which promoted his values and advertised the town's benefits.

Envelope with Allensworth postmark (1912-03-04) by California Archives Foundation Collection, Ephemera (95-12-31(i)), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Within a few years, the town expanded dramatically.

By 1914, the town's population had grown to nearly 250 inhabitants who patronized its churches, school, two general stores, post office, and other businesses.

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway spur line (in blue) to Alpaugh, California (1922) by Railroad Commission, Administration Division Records, Reference Maps "Map No. 10" (F3725:3815), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Yet soon after reaching its apex, Allensworth began its equally swift decline from a number of external factors.

Lieutenant Colonel Allensworth died after being struck by a motorcycle during a visit to Los Angeles in September 1914. The sudden and tragic loss of its founder and spiritual leader shook the community.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway added a spur line to Alpaugh, purposefully bypassing Allensworth, so that white residents would not have to interact with Allensworth citizens. This move deprived the town of its important commercial artery.

Letters regarding arsenic in Allentown's water supply (1967) by Senator Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Another reason for the decline revolved around water. The private water company that had committed to providing water to the community did not honor that commitment.

By the time the town was able to get control of its own water system, the water table had dropped far below the outdated equipment's capability to pump it to the surface.

Years later, in 1967, water inspectors discovered that the main water supply contained high concentrations of arsenic.

Allensworth elementary student breakdown and Allensworth Elementary School (1916) by Dept. of Education Records, Bureau of School Apportionments and Reports Records, Annual Reports (Common School Reports) 1916-1917, Volume IV, Annual Report of the Condition of the Public Schools in the County of Tulare, Volume I (F3901); Royal Towns Papers (MS026_B09_891), African American Library & Museum at Oakland, Oakland Public Library, Oakland, CaliforniaCalifornia State Archives

The Department of Education's Common School Reports at the California State Archives sadly chart the decline of this once vibrant community.

In 1914, the school had an average of thirty-five students and in 1916, forty students. However, by 1922 only seventeen students were in attendance and by 1926, attendance averaged only ten students in Allensworth.

Finally, when the United States entered World War II, most of the remaining residents relocated to Los Angeles or Oakland for war production jobs.

By the 1960s, only a few individuals and itinerant farm workers lived in the ramshackle houses.

In 1969, Tulare County government officials planned to sell to local ranchers over a dozen Allensworth properties in a tax lien sale.

Ed Pope's memo to the Department of Parks and Recreation by Senator Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Before the tax lien sale went through, however, the Department of Parks and Recreation received a suggestion to consider Allensworth as a state park.

Ed Pope, a young African American landscape architect for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and a former resident of Allensworth, understood its historical significance and prepared a proposal to preserve the historic town.

Pope tied a lack of representation of the African American experience in the California state park system and the contemporaneous civil rights struggle with the need to save Allensworth.

Pope's undated memo to William Penn Mott, Jr., Director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, stated that farming corporations' purchases would soon erase any sign of Allensworth's existence. He wrote:

The times we live in are perilous. Men are no longer content to turn the other cheek. The quantities of patience and forbearance that enabled Colonel Allensworth to endure the degradations of slavery, to be sold as chattel property, to escape the institution of slavery, and to volunteer his life as a soldier fighting for the survival of his country; and yet be inspired to establish a home and community where others could live with freedom and dignity – these qualities are not common among us. The opportunity to preserve this history is available to us now. In preserving it, we will be saying that we see the futility that has borne the fruits of violence in our time.

Memoranda in support of creating a state park at Allensworth (1969) by Senator Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Director Mott was soon on board with the idea, stating in his April 1969 letter to Governor Ronald Reagan:

"I believe we have been delinquent in our historical perspective and interpretation program in not having given attention to the contributions made by our Black citizens. The Allensworth project, at first glance, appears to me to be one which could give us a start in correcting that deficiency."

Senate Concurrent Resolution to preserve the town of Allensworth as a state historic park (1969) by Original Bill Files, Legislative Records, California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Senate Concurrent Resolution 124, introduced in May 1969 by Senator Mervyn Dymally, the first African American to serve in the State Senate, expressed the support of the legislature with the Department of Parks and Recreation's efforts to preserve the Allensworth community.

Governor Reagan then approved appropriations that allowed exploration of the project.

State Land Deed documents for the initial purchase of land to create Allensworth State Park. (1973) by Department of General Services, Office of Real Estate Services, State Land Deeds (72-3099), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Subsequent legislation created a feasibility study for the park (Resolution Chapter 176, Statutes of 1970), established the Allensworth Advisory Committee (Chapter 1506, Statutes of 1970), and appropriated money to purchase the tax lien parcels from Tulare County and local residents (Chapter 1427, Statutes of 1972).

At left is the State Land Deed transferring ownership of the parcels for purposes of creating Allensworth State Historic Park.

Letters of support from leaders of the African American civic organizations (1972/1973) by Assemblymember John Miller Papers (LP170:70), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Prominent African American churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other African American civic and social organizations supported the efforts to establish Allensworth as a state park.

Allensworth Advisory Committee Chairman Oath of Office of Dr. Kenneth G. Goode (1971) by Secretary of State Records, Oaths of Office (297A), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

The Allensworth Advisory Committee was composed of leading African American historians, civic leaders, former Allensworth residents and their descendants. Ed Pope was also on the committee and Dr. Kenneth Goode, Assistant Chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, served as the committee chair.

The oaths of office for each member of the committee are included in the California State Archives collections.

Letters from State Senator Howard Way disparaging the need to restore the town of Allensworth (1972) by Senator Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Yet, many opposed the decision to create a state park at Allensworth.

Howard Way, the area's state senator, agreed that some sort of center that discussed the African American experience in California could be appropriate, but he felt it should be located in an area, such as Pomona or Watts, where there was a larger concentration of African Americans.

Letters from Al Green, Member of the Allensworth Advisory Committee, to Senator Howard Way (1972) by Senator Howard Way Papers (LP174:176), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Responding to Senator Way's suggestion for a center on the African American experience elsewhere, Allensworth Advisory Committee member, Al Greene, stated:

"I believe in the restoration of Allensworth because it is history – it is a focal point to portraying history of blacks in California – they certainly did exist – they certainly did contribute to California development and it certainly must be told so all of us can appreciate blacks as Americans too."

Allensworth Feasibility Study and letters confirming support for Allensworth State Historic Park (1971/1972) by Assemblymember John Miller Papers (LP170:70), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Based on the recommendations of the Advisory Committee, the favorable Allensworth Feasibility Study and the vocal outpouring of support for the project, the legislature decided to preserve Allensworth as a California State Historic Park.

Allensworth Land Use Plan (1971) by Assemblymember John Miller Papers (LP170:70), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

In the 1970s, the Department of Parks and Recreation restored or rebuilt over two dozen buildings, including Colonel Allensworth's residence, the town church, the school, a hotel, and two general stores.

The agency furnished the interiors of these buildings with items from around 1915, when the town was at its peak.

Landscaping restored the attractiveness of the town and created accommodations for large gatherings and festivals.

"allensworth's big day" newsletter article celebrating its opening as a State Historic Park (1976) by Department of Parks and Recreation Records, Press Files (R191.43), California State ArchivesCalifornia State Archives

Allensworth officially opened as a California State Historic Park in October 1976.

Colonel Allensworth's home and general stores at Allensworth State Historic Park (2008) by ©2008 California State Parks, Images 090-P57545, 090-P58837, 090-P57565. 090-P58986.California State Archives

Today, Allensworth is a proud part of the California State Park System and a lasting testament to the tenacious dreams of both its founders and those who sought to preserve it.

The park hosts Black History Month activities, an Old-Time Jubilee, Juneteenth celebrations, and has an annual attendance of over 10,000 visitors.

For more information about the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, visit the Colonel Allensworth SHP website.

Credits: Story

California State Archives
Sacramento, CA
Unless otherwise cited, all images are from records held by the California State Archives.

Digital exhibit by Beth Behnam (2018).
Imaging by Beth Behnam, Brian Guido, and Thaddeus McCurry (2018).

California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Black History and Culture
The past, present, and future of the Black experience in the United States
View theme
Google apps