The old man sat in the corner of the one-room schoolhouse watching the ebb and flow of people coming through the front door. His dress was reminiscent of the legendary Buffalo soldiers—blue wool shirt with lighter-colored pants and a yellow scarf tied loosely around his neck. The sun, on its westward journey, sent a shaft of light along the side of his face. Smooth brown skin betrayed his 80 years; a tear, which he absentmindedly neglected to wipe away, hung tentatively on his right cheek.
“I didn’t come here to do interviews or take pictures,” he said. “I came here to talk and entertain the people.” I lowered my camera, but he didn’t speak as he watched the crowd milling around the room.
“Please don’t touch the exhibitions,” he finally admonished. “Be considerate of others coming after you.” Cornelius “Ed” Pope is no song-and-dance man, but a teacher, a griot, an elder among a group of volunteers calling itself “The Friends of Allensworth.” Neither a failing heart nor the effect of chemo treatments keeps him from his appointed task. He spearheaded the establishment of Allensworth State Park and remains a resident of Allensworth, past and present.
Fresh from the hospital, he paces himself as he greets six busloads from the Bay Area—800 visitors in all. They’re among approximately 70,000 people who tour Allensworth annually. They come to learn about the place Ed Pope is dedicated to preserving—Allensworth State Park, the vestiges of California’s first, and last, all-Black settlement.
In 1969 Ed Pope, then a state landscape architect, and Ruth Lasartemay rallied to rescue Colonel Allensworth’s dream. They created an organization to garner support for a state historic site at Allensworth. In 1973, California purchased the land and work began. By spring 1976, plans were approved, and by October the park was dedicated.
Ed Pope grew up in Allensworth and went to school there. He credits his mentor, Mr. Heinzman, the owner of the general store, with teaching him history—especially that of Allensworth—and with instilling in him an appreciation of the Colonel’s dream.
On the day I visited it was apparent amid the picture taking and conversation that he was growing weary. He took a deep breath and pointed at the photograph of a woman who was his teacher so many years ago. Then as the late afternoon sun continued its lazy journey west, Ed Pope rested on the schoolhouse steps.
“Who,” I asked, “will continue your work? Who is going to keep teaching others about the dream that now lives on as this park?”
“There are thousands waiting to continue where I leave off,” he answered. “The first step is to reconnect with the past. This little town is like an umbilical cord connecting to an original source. When I die, spokesmen will come out by the thousands. In fact, there are people out there right now.”
Mr. Cornelius Ed Pope passed away on September 21, 2008, twenty days before the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park hosted the Centennial Celebration of the founding of the Allensworth, California.
This article is Courtesy of SkyWest Magazine