There was a town called Allensworth. But was not just any town. Though now no longer thriving, Allensworth is the only California community to be founded, financed, and governed by African Americans.
It was founded in 1908 by a Black man named Allen Allensworth, and at one point, the town was a self-contained bustling community of Black people.
Allen Allenswoth’s story is an incredible one, by any account. Allen was born into slavery in 1842 in Kentucky. During the American Civil War, he escaped. He went on to do a number of things, including becoming a Baptist minister and founder of several churches. He was also an educator. He was a politician as well. In 1880 and 1884, he served as the only Black delegate from Kentucky in the Republican National Conventions. And, in 1886 he was appointed a chaplain to a unit of Buffalo Soldiers in the West in the United States Army, NewsOne reported.
The Buffalo Soldiers originally were part of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the army, formed on September 21, 1866. This nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” was given to the Black Cavalry by Native American tribes who fought in the Indian Wars, the National Park Service reported.
Allen went on to become the highest-ranking Black officer of his time, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served in the army for 20 years, retiring in 1906.
In 1908, he purchased 9,000 acres of land and created the town named in his honor to operate as an independent and self-governed ranching and farming colony for free Blacks.
The town had its own school, a church, businesses, and a bank and proved to be a safe haven for over 300 families of free Blacks, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Allen aimed to create the “Tuskegee of the West,” according to Terrance Dean, a Black studies professor at Denison University in Ohio. Dean provided expert testimony to California’s Reparations Task Force.
In a letter to prominent Black leader Booker T. Washington, the principal of Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) Allensworth said he wanted his town to be “where African Americans would settle upon the bare desert and cause it to blossom as a rose,” KQED reported.
Allen saw his dream come to fruition but the town fell into disarray following his death. And the town had to face challenges and an outside effort to destroy it. It was difficult “being a Black self-sufficient town in a white racist country,” NewsOne reported.
By the 1920s there were still more than 300 residents that lived in Allensworth, but it needed support from the surrounding white establishments. The Pacific Water Company, for example, promised Allensworth’s elected officials that water would be proved to the land, but this turned out to be a lie, NewsOne reported. The town had to sue the company and it turned out to be a long legal battle that would up to be a loss for the townspeople.
Then, the Santa Fe Railroad suspended the connecting rail line to Allensworth and diverted it to a neighboring all-white town. This was a major blow to the town.
With no water to farm and no transportation, Allensworth ultimately became a ghost town, NewOne reported.
There has been an effort to preserve some of the town’s original structures, and it has been preserved as the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
Allen Allensworth / Alice Calbert Royal points to the schoolhouse she attended in Allensworth, Calif, Sept. 30, 2008. “What I saw in this school was the beauty and culture of the African American experience at the turn of the century, which is so totally opposite what they teach in the textbooks, even today. That stayed with me.” (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)