15 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 15


Since yesterday was Valentine's Day, I took a day off. So today's post is a two-for-one post, looking at Colonel Allen Allensworth, and the town he helped found, Allensworth, California.

Colonel Allen Allensworth

Colonel Allen Allensworth (1842-1914)
Allen Allensworth was a former slave who escaped the bonds of slavery in exchange for service in the Civil War. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842, Allensworth would experience slavery in Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana, all the while struggling to educate himself despite the illegality of this aim.

When Allensworth met soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union unit stationed near Louisville, KY, he told them of his desire for freedom. The troops helped Allensworth escape slavery when he marched with them from Louisville to join them in fighting the Civil War. Allensworth would go on to enlist in the U.S. Navy, in 1863, where he would earn his first pay as a free man. He would go on to serve as one of the first Black chaplains in the U.S. Army, a duty which he performed when he was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers. By the time Allensworth retired from active military service, in 1906, he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, making him the first African American to reach such a high ranking in U.S. military history.

Allensworth, California

When Allensworth retired from military service in 1906, he and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California. Allensworth desired to develop an all-black community where Blacks could live without fear of racial discrimination, and where he and his people could live and creative "sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty." On June 30, 1908, he saw the fulfillment of this dream when he, along with four other men with a similar vision of an all-Black community, founded the California Colony Home Promotion Organization and developed a settlement in Tulare County. After buying first 20, then 80 more, acres of land, the settlement began to thrive, expanding to 900 acres and over 200 occupants by 1914. The colony, which quickly developed into a town, became known as the "Tuskegee of the West," well-established with homes, streets, a church, orchestra, glee club, and brass band. Allensworth would become the first, and only, California community to be founded, financed, and governed by African Americans.

Unfortunately, the town which had flourished in the dream of racial peace began to deteriorate in the wake of falling water levels, the tragic accidental death of Col. Allensworth in a 1914 pedestrian-motorcycle accident, and the Great Depression. From 1914 to the 1940s, the population began to decline, becoming a mix of migrant farm workers, Blacks, and Hispanics. By 1972, the population had dropped to 90; soon the town became almost a ghost town.

This decline, however, was met with a drive, in the 1970s, to save Allentown, and would lead to the town being preserved as a national historic monument and public park. When the town site became a California state historic park, in 1976, restorations began to preserve the town in the memory of Col. Allensworth and the African Americans who contributed to the history and development of Allensworth and California.

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