Allensworth, CA., a community of Black self pride
On this date, we celebrate the founding of Allensworth, California, in 1908. This was the first and only all Black town in California’s history.
On this date, Allen Allensworth, a former soldier, and William Payne, a teacher, created the California Colony and Home Promoting Association, with offices in the San Fernando Building on Main Street and in downtown Los Angeles. Others also played significant roles in the colony's founding‑John W. Palmer, a miner; William H. Peck, a minister; and Harry A. Mitchell, a real estate agent. The Pacific Farming Company, a White-owned rural land development firm, offered the association prime land in Solito, a rural area in Tulare County 30 miles north of Bakersfield.
Quickly renamed, Allensworth was a good site for the colony. It had a depot station on the main Santa Fe Railroad line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the soil was fertile, the water seemingly abundant, and the acreage not only plentiful but also reasonably priced. Initially, many of the colony residents, including Colonel Allensworth, were surprised but gratified that a White company had come to their aid. Yet within five years, the Pacific Farming Company would become the colony's adversary in a water controversy. The 1912-1915 period marked the apex of Allensworth as a thriving community. African-American newspapers throughout the nation noticed the tiny hamlet.
The New York Age chronicled its growth, the Washington Bee congratulated all involved with the enterprise, and the California Eagle gleefully exclaimed, "There is not a single white person having anything to do with the affairs of the colony.” Even the Los Angeles Times took note, labeling Allensworth "an ideal Negro settlement.” The national Black community was starved for race victories. Positive actions such as those taken by Allensworth residents were one way to portray Blacks in a more favorable light. Also during this period, Allensworth favorably affected the surrounding area's economic and political structure. Sources such as the Oakland Sunshine (a leading San Francisco Bay area Black newspaper) claimed that in 1913, the citizens of Allensworth generated nearly $5,000 monthly in their business ventures.
Politically, Allensworth became a member of the county school district, the regional library system. A voting precinct elected Oscar Overr the first African-American Justice of the Peace in post-Mexican California. In 1914, the California Eagle reported that the Allensworth community consisted of 900 acres of deeded land worth more than $112,500. Allensworth became a town, not just a colony. The social and educational organizations that existed during Allensworth's golden age were The Owl Club, the Campfire Girls, the Girls' Glee Club, and the Children's Saving Association. They met the needs of the young, while adults participated in the Sewing Circle, the Whist Club, the Debating Society, and the Theater Club.
The Girls' Glee Club, modeled after the internationally known Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, was the community's pride and joy. Another element in Allensworth's development of the sense of communal responsibility was the struggle to establish a state-supported industrial school.
Early in 1914, Colonel Allensworth lobbied for an educational institute to be based on the model pioneered by Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee in Alabama. But it was not to be. The lobbyists had been duped by the Pacific Farming Company and others. Almost immediately, the Allensworth colony faced several crises that led to its eventual decline. In 1914, the Santa Fe Railroad, never a supporter of this Black community, built a spur line to neighboring Alpaugh, thus allowing most rail traffic to bypass Allensworth and depriving the town of the lucrative carrying trade.
The Santa Fe's decision was the culmination of a series of racist conflicts between Allensworth and the railroad. Initially, the rail line refused to change the name of the depot from Solito/Solita to Allensworth. The corporation also refused to hire African-Americans as the manager or ticket agents of the station located in the colony despite repeated letters and recriminations.
Moreover, the community continued to reel under the long-standing water problem. As part of the initial purchase, the Pacific Farming Company had agreed to supply sufficient water for irrigation, regardless of how large the town grew, but as early as 1910, the Pacific Farming Company was failing to honor its commitment. Eventually, the community sought and gained legal redress: the control of the Allensworth Water Company passed to the town. But it was too late because the town now owned an outdated water system, and had the unexpected burden of massive, unpaid taxes. Not until 1918 was the community able to rid itself of the tax burden and begin to upgrade the pumping machinery, but by then the water table had dropped too low and the equipment was ineffective.
But the single most critical factor in the community's decline was the death of Allen Allensworth in 1914. On September 13, Allensworth was struck by a speeding motorcycle and died the next morning. The Allensworth community was devastated. By 1920, the two leading figures, William Payne and Josephine Allensworth, had left the area. Payne had accepted a teaching job at El Centro, while Mrs. Allensworth returned to Los Angeles to live with her daughter, Nella. The exodus continued during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. The lure of jobs in Oakland and in other war industry sites further decimated the town's population and, in 1966, arsenic was found its water supply.
This seemed to sound the death knell for Allensworth. In May 1976, the state Department of Parks and Recreation approved the plans to develop the park, and on October 6, 1976, the park was indeed dedicated. So the colonel's dream, if not his colony, endures. The community of Allensworth was a result of a philosophy of racial self-help. What matters now is that everyone discovers the depths of character and vision of those who, through their attempt to build a colony, tried to provide an opportunity for men and women to transcend race-based limits, and thus control their own destinies.
Friends of Allensworth San Diego