Biography of Colonel Allensworth
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.
In 1855, at the age of thirteen, Allen Allensworth decided to run away because of the harsh treatment he received at the hands of the plantation’s overseer. He was discovered, however, and sold at auction to a slave dealer in Henderson, Kentucky, for $960.00. He was again taken “down river” to Memphis, Tennessee, put in a “slave pen”, and put up for $1,200.00. He was confined to a “niggerpen” with more than 1,000 other slaves. He was eventually purchased by Fred Scruggs, a horse and slave trader, to be trained as a racehorse rider. Scruggs moved his horses and slaves to Louisville in anticipation of the upcoming horse races, but when the Union forces neared Louisville, the races were canceled. Allensworth fled behind the Union lines and was permitted to work as a “nurse” attached to the Hospital Corps of the 44th Illinois.
After the war, he and his brother established and successfully operated two restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri. During this time, Allen also managed to complete his formal education.
In April, 1863, a Black soldier urged Allensworth to use his influence to secure the appointment of Black chaplains of Black regular army regiments. In 1871, Allen Allensworth became a minister. Learning that the chaplain of the all-Black 24th Infantry would be retiring, Allensworth was appointed April 1, 1886, by the President as chaplain of the 24th Infantry with the rank of Captain. One year later, he met and married Josephine Leavell, a young school teacher and talented pianist and organist.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, he was stationed at several camps in the United States and the Indian Territory and participated in the Spanish American War and the Philippine Liberation. Not only did he take care of the black soldiers’ spiritual well-being, but he was also responsible for teaching them English and seeing to “their moral education and entertainment.” Allensworth retired from the military after a successful career in 1906. At the time of retirement, Allensworth held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was both the highest ranking chaplain and the highest ranking Black officer of his time.
After retiring, Colonel Allensworth traveled extensively throughout the mid-western and min-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. He moved to Los Angeles to establish a viable community, a dream he had nurtured for many years as a result of his own experiences and those of other Afro-Americans of the most vile forms of discrimination. He was touched by the condition of black people, with whom he was surrounded, and his pity, his indignation at the injustices they had to endure, his zeal for their relief and improvement, and his remarkable self-control under many provocations made him a valuable citizen.
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.
Hearing that land was very rich and readily available in the southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, Colonel Allensworth investigated and found the land to be extremely fertile, land costs reasonable, surface water abundant and underground water tables exceedingly high.
1n 1908, Colonel Allensworth and his friend, Professor William Payne, an educator, joined Dr. Peck, an AME minister, Mr. Palmer, a Nevada miner, and Mr. Mitchell, a Los Angeles realtor, to form the California Colony and Home Promoting Association (CCHPA). The group finally settled on a site midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco with plenty of inexpensive farmland and several artesian wells. When the California Colony and Home Promoting Association filed the Allensworth township site plan with the Tulare County Recorder on August 3, 1908, it represented both the culmination of years of prior planning and organization and the start of what was to become the present town of Allensworth. with the filing the community, which was officially nmed Allensworth after the Colonies founder, became a reality.
Dates in Col. Allensworth’s Life
- Born in slavery April 7, 1842 in Louisville, Kentucky
- In 1854, Allensworth was sold down rive for attempting to learn to read and write
- Allen Allensworth was purchased by Fred Scruggs and trained as a racehorse rider in 1855
- April, 1863, joined the United States Navy
- On April 4, 1865, Allensworth was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy
- About 1870, Allensworth began religious studies
- April 9, 1871, Allensworth was ordained a minister
- March 12, 1883, Allensworth was certified as a teacher
- April 1, 1886 he was appointed Chaplain to the 24th Infantry with a Captain’s rank
- On April 7, 1906 Allensworth retired from the U.S. Army as Lt. Colonel, the highest rank ever achieved by a U.S. Army Chaplain and the highest ranking black officer of his time
- In 1906 he moved to Los Angeles
- He founded the town of Allensworth in 1908
- September 14, 1914, Col. Allensworth killed by motorcyclist while visiting Los Angeles
In 1908, Colonel Allensworth and Professor William Payne incorporated the “California colony and Home Promotion Association”. Once they had located land halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco that was also near a depot on the Santa Fe railroad line in Tulare County, they began a successful promotion to bring Black families to Allensworth.
The new town grew rapidly at first as engineers, craftsmen, farmers, businessmen, retired soldiers, educators and nurses bought town lots, started farms and built homes for their families. There were over 800 acres dedicated to agriculture. The community grew alfalfa, grain, sugar beets and raised chickens, turkey, diary cattle, and Belgian hares.
In its heyday, Allensworth was alive with activity. The town was a transfer point on the railroad. So grain and cattle merchants provided a steady stream of business for the restaurant, hotel and livery stable. Other businesses included well digging and construction. A school, church, library, and a post office were quickly built by the community.
The residents of Allensworth were busy with activities, too. They formed a Girls’ Glee Club that performed in neighboring towns, a Women’s Improvement League, a Brass Band and an Orchestra. According to Sadie Hackett Calbert, an Allensworth resident, in “Memories of Allensworth”, people came from all around to visit the town to see “what we have done.” She wrote that Allensworth was, “alert and alive with activities which closely resembled a beehive.” The women organized formal debates, concerts, play, club meetings and other social activities that made the town a community. According to Elizabeth Payne McGhee, “We never felt deprived. We didn’t have plumbing facilities, we didn’t have electricity, there were many things that we didn’t have, but we didn’t have, but we didn’t feel the lack of them. We would go to Pasadena for the summer, and enjoy all those things in the city, but when we got home we were quite content, because there were always the streams to explore, and the fish to catch, and we took lots of pictures. Women did needlework, lots of crocheting, canning, and so forth. And we read and wrote. I remember I was nine, my sister was eleven, and we had started a novel, and we were writing a play, and my eldest sister played the piano. We composed songs. Everybody was creative, because when you don’t have it handed to you, you make your own”.
When the California Colony and home Promoting Association filed the Allensworth township site plan the Tulare County Recorder on August 3, 1908, it represented both the culmination of years of prior planning and organization and the start of what was to become the present town of Allensworth.
With Colonel Allensworth as president of the association, plans were developed to establish an all-Black community in the southwest corner of Tulare County. The community became a reality on August 3, 1908, with the filing of the township site plan. In an article in the August 7, 1908 issue of the Tulare Register, it was noted, “The Town, which is to be called Allensworth, is to enable colored people to live on an equity with whites and to encourage industry and thrift in the race,” It also declared that “Allensworth is the only enterprise of its kind in the United States.”
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. The first classes had been held in the home of Mr. Hackett, as early as 1909. But, in 1910, the people of Allensworth secured a county school through a Mr. Walker of Visalia, the County Superintendent of Schools, and in that same year, the first school was built. The Allensworth School Board consisted of Mrs. J. Allensworth, Mrs. O. Overr and Mr. J.W. Hall.
The school was a regular county school with one teacher. The colony chose a Black teacher, Mr. William Payne. Mr. Oscar Overr donated the lumber for the building and the Alpaugh School District supplied money for the teacher.
The size of the classes soon made it necessary for people to build a larger school, the former school building became the “Mary Dickerson Memorial Library” and reading room.
The library was started by Mrs. Allensworth. She donated the land which the building stood on, remodeled and redecorated the building, making it suitable for a library. Books were donated by her husband, Colonel Allensworth, Mrs. Ballard of Fresno, Mr. Greek of North Dakota, Jerry Williams of San Francisco and many others. It was one of the largest libraries in circulation in the State.
There were three churches in the town – the First Baptist Church, the Methodist Zion and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Baptist Church held their services in a building on the corner of Stowe and Young streets; the Methodist church held theirs in the Allensworth School when a visiting minister came to town, and the Seventh Day Adventist church held their services in the home of Joshua Singleton.
In 1914, Allensworth was made a voting precinct and a judicial district. In a move that was applauded by all the surrounding communities, Allensworth elected Oscar Overr, a Black man, to the position of Justice of the Peace, and at the same time elected William Dotson constable of the community.
There has been much controversy over the water problems, which engulfed the community of Allensworth in 1912. At the time of settlement there was plenty of drinkable water available to potential settler. However, the water supply became a problem and blossomed into a ful-blown crisis. In 1911, both water companies were declared inactive by the Secretary of State’s office in Sacramento, for nonpayment of corporate taxes. The Pacific Farming Company, then seized control of these two companies and declared that no more land could be sold to Blacks.
According to the Tulare Weekly Review, October 2, 1913, the Allensworth people successfully negotiated an agreement with the Pacific Farming Company regarding the irrigation of the land in the colony. The Pacific Farming Company accepted the terms of colonist, which stated that the Allensworth Rural Water Company would be returned to the colonists, the present officers would resign, and new ones would be elected from the people of the town. In return, the Pacific Farming Company would issue one share of stock in the water company for every acre of land under cultivation. They would also put in electric pump plants, to increase the water supply from 115 to 175 inches, which would be more than abundant for crops in the area. As more land was cultivated, the farming company promised to put in additional pumps.
The people of Allensworth eventually won an agreement with the Pacific Farming Company, over the water rights question, but this was only the beginning of their troubles.
Colonel Allensworth had another dream to start an educational institution for Blacks in California. He and Mr. Payne, the teacher at the Allensworth School, were concerned that many young Blacks were either not going to school at all, or were going back to the old South to receive their higher education and vocational training. Although, some of California’s schools were not segregated at this time, it was economically and socially difficult for Blacks to pursue higher education in the State. Allensworth and the people of the colony proposed that a vocational school for Blacks be established in the town. This plan, however, had to have the endorsement of the state legislature. Although, they had the support of legislators in both Tulare and Fresno Counties, the plan was defeated and branded by both the white community and the Black community as a racist in nature. The reason for this particular reaction on the part of the Black community was twofold. First, they had seen countless examples of separate facilities, which were always unequal. Secondly, many felt that the Black teachers and professors lacked the professionalism required to teach their children. It was this type of mistrust, which made it easy for Whites to say, “you do not want the Negro to administer to you and neither do we want him to administer to us.”
To make matters worse, prior to the legislative battle, which was to accompany the plan for a vocational school, Allensworth was to suffer a great shock. On September 14, 1914, Rev. Allensworth was killed in a motorcycle accident. His funeral was held at the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and he was buried with full military honors, while the State and the Nation mourned the passing of a great man.
The years of 1914 and 1915 were very crucial in the survival of the town. With the death of Colonel Allensworth, the charismatic leader of the town, the people needed to pull together for leadership. Apparently, Oscar Overr, the newly elected Justice of the Peace, and William Payne, the school principal, filled the void caused by the death of the Colonel.
However, just when things seemed to be going well, a battle for the Vocational School took place casting a shadow on the development of the town. The defeat Allensworth suffered at the hands of the people of the State of California concerning the Vocational School turned out to be just one of the many defeats the town was to experience during he next fifty years. With the defeat of the school measure in the legislature, Allensworth lost potential income, which could have kept the town afloat economically. But the defeat of the proposed Vocational School did not stop the residents of Allensworth. The people began to diversify their economic base. Many of them opened new businesses, and tried new methods of farming.
The diminishing water supply forced many of the residents to change from agriculture to livestock. Some of the residents were quite successful in their endeavors to adapt to their changing economic environment. As time went on, the people of Allensworth tried many new and innovative ideas in an attempt to keep their community viable. In the final analysis, the townspeople should be commended for their efforts, for they were true pioneers.
In addition to specific historic information about persons associated with the organization and founding of Allensworth, the significance of the colony as a cultural phenomenon cannot be ignored. In the economic and social context of the United States, Allensworth represents a most remarkable achievement. Only 40 years prior to its creation, Blacks in California were excluded by law from homestead lands. One historian pointed out that the wording of the (California) Homestead law prevented a colored man from acquiring a plot of land. He might even purchase a home and yet, if a white person should claim the land, a colored person could not go into court and testify in his own behalf. It is clear that Afro-Americans. As a result, California, at the time, enjoyed no more rights than their fellow Afro-Americans in the North and the South. When California became a State, the territory was dominated by Southern Democrats and Northerners who were generally unsympathetic towards Afro-Americans.
As a result, California did not become a part of the Union until several years after it had been acquired from Mexico during which time the debate waged over whether or not it would be admitted into the Union as a “free State” or a “slave State.”
Even though California did come into the Union as a “free State,” immediately thereafter laws were passed that relegated Afro-Americans to a status a little above that of a slave. Blacks could not vote. Blacks could not join the military. Blacks could not attend the same schools as whites. Blacks could not testify against Whites. Blacks were otherwise economically and politically deprived, socially ostracized and culturally demoralized.
In contrast to this Allensworth represented for its inhabitants a refuge from the White dominated political structure and an opportunity to gain access to the land, which had been denied them for so long. There can be little doubt that the residents of the colony viewed their lives in these terms. In an interview with one of the settlers, Delilah Beasley quotes William Wells: “I am trying to prove to the white man beyond a shadow of doubt that the Negro is capable of self-respect and self-control.” In short, the cultural meaning of Allensworth at the time of its founding focused squarely on the promotion of individual self-reliance and self-respect among Black citizens of California.