California Love: The Town of Allensworth

My mom always described California as God’s country and as a little girl, I saw exactly why. It was just so beautiful. I spent much time riding my bike around North Vallejo taking in all of the gorgeous natural scenery. Thinking back, I can still smell the scent of eucalyptus wafting in the air and envision the cows dotted across American Canyon’s emerald hills all faced in the same direction, chewing.

My parents often loaded up my dad’s old school conversion van to cross the Bay Area’s bridges and explore Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. We regularly drove south down Pacific Coast Highway to see family in San Diego. Or north through Napa Valley to Stinson Beach and the forests of sequoias. Or east to Yosemite National Park.

The only time I complained (mostly to myself) about the scenery or lack thereof is if we drove Highway 5 to SoCal instead of the 101. As soon as we hit Tracy, oh God, what a bore. No scenic coastline, tree-lined cityscapes or skyscraping forests. Just miles upon miles of farmland—beautiful in its own right but not what I was into. Maybe I would have been more enthused about the Highway 5 route, if I would have known that it passed right by California’s first and only town exclusively settled, built and managed by Black people.

The town of Allensworth has been in existence for 100 years and I’m just now hearing and learning about it. I feel like someone ought to pay for that slight.

Allensworth, which still exists today, is located about two and half hours north of Los Angeles between Visalia and Bakersfield. It was established in 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth, Professor William Payne, AME minister Dr. William H. Peck, Nevada miner J. W. Palmer, and Los Angeles realtor Harry Mitchell.

Now, if you click through the link below for Colonel Allensworth, you’ll get an expanded portrait of the man’s life, but I must note here just how truly badass this man was. Born a slave in Kentucky in 1842, your man learned how to read and write early on and escaped slavery. He served during the Civil War first as a nurse for the Union and then in the U.S. Navy. He became the second Black U.S. Army chaplain ever and retired in 1906 as a  lieutenant-colonel which was the highest rank a Black man could achieve at the time. A disciple of Booker T. Washington’s teachings, he spoke throughout the U.S. promoting Black empowerment through self-sufficiency. As such, establishing the town of Allensworth in California as a colony for Blacks who made up the earliest waves of the Great Migration was a huge step toward doing just that.

Colonel Allensworth and his four partners organized the The California Colony and Home-Promotion Association which received its state corporation papers and acquired 20 acres of land. Blacks eager to escape the horrors of Jim Crow responded with great enthusiasm as they came, built homes and immediately acted to form a promising community. Two years later, they built a school. In 1912, Allensworth was made a voting precinct school district complete with state and county funding. There was also a library which provided extension courses from the University of California. Allensworth Rural Water Company, a state corporation owned and controlled by Blacks, provided the irrigation system which powered the town’s agricultural businesses.

With about 300 residents, the town was on its way to greatness, but then racism and the death of Colonel Allensworth happened. The video here tells the story of both the man and the town better than I could in this single post. Today, the original Allensworth is a California State Historic Park which features buildings from the initial settlement. There is also the neighboring township of Allensworth which you can read more about here.

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