In addition to his work in developing churches, he was notable for founding the township of Allensworth, California in 1908; it was intended as an all-black community to be free of the racial discrimination faced by so many at the turn of the 20th century. It was the only California town to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans. Although environmental conditions inhibited its success as a farming community and the residents abandoned it, much of the former town has been preserved as the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. It marks the founders' dream and the thriving community that developed for some time.
His mother was held by A.P. and Bett Starbird. The mistress assigned Allen as a young slave to her son Thomas. When the Starbird boy started school, Allen began to learn from him, although it was illegal. After his father died when Allen was young, his mother chose to be sold as a cook to a neighbor, the attorney Nat Wolfe. When the Starbirds found Allen was learning to read, they separated him from their son and placed him with another family, the Talbots. Mrs. Talbot, a Quaker, was kind to Allen and continued to teach him to read and write; she also took him to a Sunday school for slave children. When Bett Starbird discovered this, she took Allen back. In 1854 she made arrangements with her husband's partner John Smith to send the boy to his brother Pat's plantation down the Mississippi River in Henderson, to put an end to his learning. On the steamboat, the boy was placed in the care of a slave steward rather than being chained with other slaves below deck, who were being taken for sale to downriver markets.
Hebe Smith, Allen's new mistress, assigned him to be a houseboy; she prohibited him from continuing his studies, and whipped him for trying to do so. Also working in the household was a white orphan boy Eddie; the two boys became friends and helped each other. Suffering on the farm from a cruel overseer, in 1855 at age 13, Allen planned to escape to Canada. He spent two weeks hiding at a neighboring farm before returning to the Smiths for punishment. Later he ran away again. The Smiths and Starbirds agreed to sell him on the auction block in Henderson.
Allensworth was sold again in Memphis, Tennessee and shipped to New Orleans. There he was bought by Fred Scruggs, who taught him to work as an exercise boy and jockey in Jefferson, Louisiana. Unlike others, his new master was pleased to learn that the boy could read; he assigned him to race his best horse.
BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY - Civil War and freedomIn early 1861 the Civil War loomed, but horse racing continued and Scruggs took Allen and his horses upriver for the fall meet in Louisville. Allensworth hoped to see his mother Phyllis again, as he had learned that her last master, a Rev. Bayliss, had freed her after she cared for his dying wife. He found that she had recently gone to New Orleans with a Union man to look for her sons. (She found Major in prison.) Waiting for her return, Allensworth was reunited with his sister Mary Jane, who had married and had a son. She had purchased her freedom in 1849. When Phyllis Starbird returned to Louisville, she and Allen were reunited.
While working nearby on a farm where Scruggs' deputy had placed him, Allensworth met soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union unit encamped near Louisville. When he told them of wanting freedom, they invited him to join the Hospital Corps. In disguise, he marched with the unit past his old master through Louisville and off to war. After serving as a civilian nursing aide for some time, he was invited to accompany Dr. A. J. Gordon, one of the surgeons, to his home in Georgetown, Ohio. There Allensworth dined with Gordon's family, was given a room of his own, and felt he first walked as a free man. With the war continuing, in 1863 Allensworth enlisted in the US Navy, where he earned his first pay as a free man. He was soon promoted to Captain's steward and clerk, and served on the gunboats Queen City and Tawah for two years.
Allensworth first returned to Kentucky to work and study. In 1868 he joined his brother William in St. Louis, where they operated two restaurants. Within a short time, they received a favorable offer and sold them out; Allensworth returned to Louisville. He worked while putting himself through the Ely Normal School, one of several new schools in the South established by the American Missionary Association. During Reconstruction, Allensworth taught at schools for freedmen and their children operated by the Freedman's Bureau.
After the war, Allensworth became involved with the Baptist Church in Louisville. He was ordained in 1871 by the Baptists as a preacher. In the 1870s, he went on to study theology in Tennessee. During this time he also served as preacher in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville.
In 1875, he started working as a teacher in Georgetown, Kentucky. He also served as the financial agent of the General Association of the Colored Baptists in Kentucky. They had joined together to support the founding of a religious school for black teachers and preachers. Allensworth was among the founders of The State University, helped guarantee the salary of the president in the early years, and served on the Board of Trustees.
He returned to Louisville when called to be pastor of the Harney Street Baptist Church, which he reorganized, attracting many new members. They renamed it Centennial Baptist Church; it was selected as a model by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of America. Within a few years, Allensworth had increased the congregation nearly fivefold, and it built a new church.
In 1877 he married Josephine Leavell (1855–1938), also a native of Kentucky; they had met while studying at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. They had two daughters together, Eva and Nella.
The year of his marriage, Allensworth invited his mother to live with him and Josephine. They had several months together before she died in 1878 at the age of 96.
Allensworth was called to the State Street Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He also gave public lectures. That fall, he went to Boston to give a series of lectures, after studying public speaking in Philadelphia.
On his return, he met people from the American Baptist Publication Society in Philadelphia, who appointed him as Sunday School Missionary for the state of Kentucky. He had always worked to build up the Sunday Schools at his churches, and this gave him the chance to continue to work on education around the state. The Colored Baptist State Sunday School Convention of Kentucky appointed him to the position of State Sunday School Superintendent.
With his leadership positions and public speaking, Allensworth became increasingly interested in politics. In 1880 and 1884, he was selected as Kentucky's only black delegate to the Republican National conventions.
At Fort Bayard, Allensworth wrote Outline of Course of Study, and the Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, N.M.. The Army adapted these for use as the standard manual on the education of enlisted personnel.
By the time of his retirement in 1906, Allensworth had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the first African American to do so.
In 1908, he founded Allensworth in Tulare county, about thirty miles north of Bakersfield, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The black settlers of Allensworth built homes, laid out streets, and put up public buildings. They established a church, and organized an orchestra, a glee club, and a brass band.
The Allensworth colony became a member of the county school district and the regional library system and a voting precinct. Residents elected 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 (360 ha) of deeded land worth more than US$112,500.
Allensworth soon became a town, not just a colony. Among the social and educational organizations that flourished during its golden age were the Campfire Girls, the Owl Club, the Girls' Glee Club, and the Children's Savings Association, for the town's younger residents, while adults participated in the Sewing Circle, the Whist Club, the Debating Society, and the Theater Club. Col. Allensworth was an admirer of the African-American educator Booker T. Washington, who was the founder and longtime leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Allensworth dreamed that his new community could be self-sufficient and become known as the "Tuskegee of the West".
The Girls' Glee Club was modeled after the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who had toured internationally. They were the community's pride and joy. All the streets in the town were named after notable African Americans and/or white abolitionists, such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The dry and dusty soil made farming difficult. The drinking water became contaminated by toxins as the water level fell.
The year 1914 also brought a number of setbacks to the town. First, much of the town’s economic base was lost when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop from Allensworth to Alpaugh. In September, during a trip to Monrovia, California, Colonel Allensworth was crossing the street when he was struck and killed by a motorcycle. The town refuses to die. The downtown area is now preserved as Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park where thousands of visitors come from all over California to partake in the special events held at the park during the year. The area outside of the state park is also still inhabited.
Allensworth is the only California community to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans. The founders were dedicated to improving the economic and social status of African Americans. Uncontrollable circumstances, including a drop in the area’s water table, resulted in the town’s decline.
BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY - Legacy and honors
- The state has preserved the site and is gradually restoring its buildings. The most important building is the school house, which the community prized as representing the future of its children. In use until 1972, it is furnished as it would have been on a school day in 1915. The park arranges special events to celebrate the former community's history, and the park’s visitor center features a film about the site. An annual re-dedication ceremony reaffirms the vision of the original pioneers.
- Col. Allensworth's residence is preserved and furnished in the 1912-period style. It contains items from his life in the military service and the ministry. A small display of farm equipment is a reminder of the Allensworth economic base.