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Little town on the prairie

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 8/1/2012, 5 p.m.

You've heard of them. Vin Rhames starred in a movie about one. Beverly Jenkins wrote about a few in her early books. They are the "Colored Townships"--towns founded and settled by African Americans after the Civil War, that were a kind of self-segregation, independent-living answer to the oppression of the times.

Sure there was Rosewood in Florida and Nicodemus in Kansas, but did you know there's a Black township in California?

Founded in 1908, Allensworth was the first and only town in California founded, financed and governed by Black Americans. It is now a state historic park and is located about 30 miles north of Bakersfield in Tulare County.

Although basically abandoned following a failing water supply, a post-World War I economic slump and continuous efforts to destroy it by neighboring White towns, many of the Allensworth's historic buildings have been preserved and restored through the efforts of Cornelius Pope, an African American who, worked for the Department of State Parks and Recreation in the 1970s and brought Allensworth to the attention of his employer.

Today, the state works in cooperation with the Friends of Allensworth, a nonprofit organization made up of a group of dedicated individuals--including some former residents and their heirs--to preserve the town.

"We have approximately six families, descendants of original Allensworth settlers, that help us with special events," said Thomas Stratton, president of the Friends of Allensworth.

"Our function really, as it is now, is to put on events," he added. "We have five special events a year that include interpretation, education and outreach."

During special events, state rangers and docents, some dressed in period costumes, give tours of the park, which includes some 20 buildings. You can even take a self-guided cell-phone tour, punching in different extensions to learn the story of the town and its namesake and co-founder as you meander down the dusty roads.

Col. Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in Louisville, Ky., in 1842. He played "school" with the master's son and learned to read and write, but at 12 he was caught breaking the law that prohibited the education of slaves and was sent away to another owner.

At 20, he ran away and joined the Union Army, becoming a chief petty officer, and when the war ended, he got the education he wanted, earning a doctorate in theology; then he married and fathered two daughters. He served as chaplain to the 24th Infantry, one of the Army's four African American regiments.

Allensworth retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1906, and was the first African American to attain such a high rank in the U.S. Army. He became a lecturer, promoting Booker T. Washington's philosophy of African American self-reliance. After settling in Los Angeles, he and other like-minded individuals formed the California Colonization and Home Promotion Association in 1908 and purchased 800 acres along the Santa Fe rail line.

Soon people from all over the country, who knew the name and reputation of Col. Allensworth, came to populate the town and find a better life free from discrimination. The town became a success and even the Los Angeles Times wrote about it in an article titled, "An Ideal Negro Settlement."

By 1912, Stratton estimates that there were about 200 families living in Allensworth. It became California's first African American school district, and then a judicial district. Tulare County made its library part of its free system and supplied it with 50 books per month.

The one drawback was water. By 1914, Allensworth had a seriously lowered water table, and residents were unable to raise funds to drill more wells or improve the water system.

That same year, the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop, affecting the town's economic base.

Then, in September, as the colonel was preparing to preach at a small Monrovia church, he was victim of a hit-and-run by two men on a motorcycle. The town's inspirational leader was gone.
Drought, poor crop yields, a defeat in the state Legislature, which stopped plans for a proposed technical college (nicknamed the "Tuskegee of the West") and the post-War economic downturn led to the town's decline.

In the 1960s, after arsenic was found in the water, Allensworth was scheduled for demolition. Only the efforts of Pope and the California State Parks saved Allensworth from vanishing completely.

Due to state budget cuts, Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is on "service reduction," and is only open Friday through Sunday. Park rangers and docents conduct free tours regularly of the small, sparse housing area.

"What you see is very similar to what it looked like in 1914," Ranger Stephen Bylin said. He oversees several state parks and has been at Allensworth for five years. "They used archeological surveys, old photos and oral history to restore and reconstruct some original buildings, like the colonel's house."

The Friends of Allensworth schedule special events frequently, including Black History Month and Juneteenth celebrations. Earlier this year, the organization held an old-time Easter egg roll and plans are under way for the Oct. 13 annual rededication ceremonies, designed to renew the commitment to the park and its symbolic representation of African American self-determination.

The "history education day" will feature square-dancing, a 5K run/walk, tours, games and prizes, arts and crafts and food vendors.

The Friends of Allensworth also encourages other nonprofit groups to follow the required permit procedure with the California State Parks and host events at Allensworth. It may seem like a long drive, but on one a recent weekend nearly a hundred people enjoyed two musical days in the sun.

"The whole point is that it is important for us to invest in our culture," WE CAN Foundation Director C. Eziokwu Washington said. He hosted the "Allensworth Global Family Fair" for the second year at the site, featuring dancers, singers and musicians in a two-day event.

"I want to thank Lula Washington for bringing her talent up to this park and helping to make Allensworth the capital of performing arts," he added. "This is our capitol, our economic mecca, our community mecca."

In addition to dancers, the weekend event featured Jazz, Reggae and Rap artists on a shaded stage near the Allensworth Elementary School.

"I'm about action," Eziokwu Washington said, noting that he bought 20 acres of farmland near Allensworth himself. "A lot of folk are just a lot of pontification. I like to make things happen."

Washington planned to spend Saturday night at the park campground, which has 15 campsites near the town library.

"I'll be looking at the stars and imagining how our ancestors had this vision for economic and educational independence," he said.

"Every household should know who this man was, like they should know about the other 45 Black towns that existed in America," Washington added. "Most Black people can name maybe three."

For more information about the annual rededication, which will feature both the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, contact the Friends of Allensworth at www.freindsofallensworth.org; or www.parks.ca.gov; or call (855) 645-1255 or (661) 849-3433.