About Colonel Allensworth

Born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842, Allensworth was the youngest of thirteen children of Phyllis (c. 1782 - 1878) and Levi Allensworth. Over the years, their family was scattered: his sister Lila escaped with her intended husband to Canada by the Underground Railroad; and the older boys William, George, Frank, Levi and Major were sold downriver to plantations in the Deep South, which continued to buy enslaved workers from the Upper South to develop the cotton industry. Mary Jane was his only sibling who grew up in Kentucky and married there; she purchased her freedom in 1849, gaining stability.

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, Kentucky, 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. They were being transported 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. After being confined to a slave pen with more than 1,000  other slaves, he was purchased by Fred Scruggs, who taught him to work as an exercise boy and jockey in Jefferson, Louisiana in anticipation of the upcoming horse races.  Unlike others, his new master was pleased to learn that Allen could read; he assigned him to race his best horse


Civil War and freedom

In early 1861, the Civil War loomed, but horse racing continued. 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 and rose from  the rank of first class seaman to first class petty officer in a very short time. He was soon promoted to Captain's steward and clerk, and served on the gunboats Queen City and Tawah for two years.He was honorably discharged on April 4, 1865, after which time he worked in the commissary of the Mount City Navy Yard.


Postwar 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 Freedmen's Bureau. Inspired by his own teaching, he began attending courses at the Nashville Institute, later known as the Roger Williams University, but did not graduate. The school later gave him an honorary Master of Arts.

Allensworth became involved with the Baptist Church in Louisville and attended the Fifth Street Baptist Church led by Henry Adams. He was ordained in 1871 by the Baptists as a preacher. In the 1870s, Allensworth went to Tennessee to study theology. During this time he also served as a preacher in Franklin, Tennessee, of Nashville.

In 1875, Allensworth 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.

Marriage and family

In 1877 he married Josephine Leavell (1855–1938), also born in 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. (INSERT PICTURE OF DAUGHTER)

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.

Post-Reconstruction era

Allensworth in 1887.
Allensworth in 1887

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.

Military career as chaplain

In 1886, when he was 44, Allensworth gained support by both southern and northern politicians for appointment as a chaplain in the US Army; his appointment was confirmed by the Senate, as necessary at the time, and approved by the president. He was one of the few black chaplains in the US Army and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. His family accompanied him on assignments in the West, ranging from Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory to Fort Supply, Indian Territory, and Fort Harrison, near Helena, Montana. His wife played organ in the fort chapels.

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 gain that rank.

Allensworth, California

After the army, Allensworth and his family settled in Los Angeles. He was inspired by the idea of establishing a self-sufficient, all-black California community where African Americans could live free of the racial discrimination that pervaded post-Reconstruction America. His dream was to build a community where black people might live and create "sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty." Colonel Allensworth had a friendship with Booker T. Washington and was inspired by the Tuskegee Institute and development in its neighboring town. Allensworth hoped to develop the "Tuskegee of the West".

Upholstery Class at the Tuskegee Institute. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. LC-B2-3673-13


After moving with his family to California in 1906, Colonel Allensworth  met William Payne, and they began to form a plan for a Black community  that could sustain itself, free from the oppression of a racist society. With  Dr. W.H. Peck, an AME minister from Los Angeles; Harry Mitchell, a  wealthy businessman from that city; and J.W. Palmer, Allensworth and  Payne formed the California Colony and Home Promoting Association.  They incorporated in June, 1908, with their stated purpose being “to create  sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.” 

The group searched for an appropriate location for the colony in the San  Joaquin Valley, which had been extensively colonized by various groups  since 1880. They found a large acreage near a Santa Fe Railway station  called Solita, and drew up plans for their community. In an interview with  The Delano Holograph, Colonel Allensworth stated: 

We are looking for a large body of land upon which to colonize the negro upon the humanitarian plans so long taught and advocated by Booker T. Washington….We propose to show that  the Negro can hold his place in the industrial world and make proper use of higher education. 

The Association submitted their plot maps to the Tulare County Board of  Supervisors in August, 1908, and began advertising for colonists. The Colonel recruited settlers from his many acquaintances, including Black  soldiers, especially those of the 24th Infantry Regiment. Pioneers came from  Louisiana, Colorado, Kansas, and many other states, as well as from areas in  California. Some had farming backgrounds or had been educated at the  southern institutes of Tuskegee and Hampton. Others practiced trades, such  as carpenter, shopkeeper, and mechanic. 

Land sales were handled by a real estate firm, the Pacific Farming  Company, who were also to build roads and establish a water system. 

One of the earliest settlers was Mary Jane Bickers, who arrived in 1909, opened the town’s first general store, and ran Allensworth’s first post office.  The majority of pioneers, however, arrived between 1910 and 1912. 

The first classes for Allensworth school children were held in 1910 in the  unfinished Hackett home. Later that year, the Pacific Farming Company donated lumber and the townspeople provided labor to build a small one room school. George Johnson, an Allensworth resident, was the carpenter. 

William Payne, one of the corporate officers of the colony, became the  first teacher and principal. He was highly regarded for his work with all of  his students. 

In 1912, Allensworth became a school district, and its residents voted for  a bond to build the large two-room school, which still stands today. It  became a center of community life, where different civic, social, and  religious groups gathered. The Allensworth Justice Court held its sessions  there, and the building served as a polling place for elections. 

Mrs. Allensworth had the original small school house moved to a lot she  owned, where Abraham Stockett remodeled the building to be the town’s library. She named it the Mary Dickerson Memorial library in honor of her  mother. Books were donated by Colonel Allensworth, Mrs. Ballard of  Fresno, Mr. Greek of North Dakota, Jerry Williams of San Francisco, and  many others.

The three church groups in town—Baptist, Methodist, and Seventh Day  Adventist—met in the school or in each other’s homes. Only the Baptists built a church, which was completed in 1916. 

Allensworth’s political growth was rapid. The town became a voting precinct in 1912 and a judicial district in 1914. Oscar Overr was elected the first Justice of the Peace and William Dotson the first Town Constable. 

Business thrived in Allensworth’s early years. Railroad traffic and a large  grain warehouse helped to support the town’s hotel, livery stable, and  general stores. 

Daily life at this time, as the settlers and their children recall, was mainly that of nineteenth-century rural America. Homes, businesses, and public  buildings were lit with kerosene lamps and heated with wood or coal stoves.  Laundry was boiled in tin tubs over backyard fires. Horses pulled buggies and farm equipment. 

The mechanization of agriculture was already evident, however. John  Morris, the first manager of the Allensworth Hotel, operated a machine shop at his place, for the repair of irrigation equipment from nearby ranches. His friend, Joe Durel, who lived in Allensworth from around 1912 to 1920, had  the town’s first truck. 

Joe Durel remarked that “we were all farmers;” he grew “wheat, barley,  and a few vegetables.” By 1913, grain and alfalfa had been planted in the  rural areas around Allensworth, and there were several hundred dairy cattle.  Almost all of the residents in town had vegetable gardens; many kept  chickens and pigs, as well as a cow or two or a horse. 

Living on the land at Allensworth was not easy, even as the town flourished. Henry Singleton commented that the soil was so alkali-packed that “it looked just like flour.” Pauline Hall Patton recalled winds that “were strong enough to make you fly.” Marjorie Towns Patterson had vivid memories of alkali grass and mirages in the summer heat. Scorching  summers and the lack of trees were described by many of the settlers. 

Henry Singleton felt that the growth of the colony was due, as Colonel Allensworth had hoped, to “a great, great unity among us people.” Both  Josephine Hackett and Armilda Archer Smith recalled, for example, that their families were able to use portions of their neighbors’ land for gardens  and pasturage. Joe Durel said, “But we got along very well…then he’d come  and help me and next time he needed help I’d go over and help him, and  that’s how we got along…that’s what made the community stay alive for a  long time, until the wells began to get dry.” 

Soon after Allensworth was founded, it became evident that the  apparently abundant water table was lowering, and that a more developed  supply would be necessary. Increasing agriculture had diverted much of the  mountain runoff, the major water source. The Pacific Farming Company,  which had promised to provide a water system for the colony, had failed to dig necessary wells or to provide other essential improvements. After  litigation, the company in 1913 turned over this inadequate system to the  settlers. The community did not have the means to drill deep wells, fit them  with pumps, and make other improvements. Water grew increasingly scarce. 

Allensworth suffered two serious reversals in 1914. One was an  apparently innocuous change in the Santa Fe Railroad line, when a spur was  completed to Alpaugh in July. The Santa Fe depot at Allensworth was a  shipping center for the area’s grain and for livestock. A large warehouse and  a corral stood nearby, and the depot included a Wells Fargo Express office.  Commerce at the station provided the residents of Allensworth with jobs and  trade. In December, 1913, The Oakland Sunshine reported that “from  $4,000--$5,000 worth of business is done here every month.” Situated  closer to large grain and sugar beet fields, the Alpaugh spur quickly became  the local shipping center. At Allensworth, railroad shipments declined until,  in 1929, the highest monthly earning was $13.61. The station closed in 1930. 

On September 14, 1914, Colonel Allensworth arrived in Monrovia, near  Los Angeles, for a speaking engagement. He was struck down by a  motorcyclist and died from his injuries the following day. The Colonel was  buried with full military honors, and was mourned across the country by all  who had known him or had known of his work as a pastor, an Army officer,  an educator and visionary. 

In a town meeting, the people of Allensworth paid tribute to Col.  Allensworth and resolved: 

Finally we pledge to live up to the ideals that were Colonel  Allensworth’s. We re-affirm our faith in the community he founded; we reconsecrate ourselves to the task that was his and ours, and rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work and will strive to make this community a glowing monument to his sacred  memory and one that shall live throughout the ages. 

Oscar Overr and William Payne, already leaders in the community,  worked for Allensworth’s growth and economic progress. Their strongest  efforts were for the establishment of a vocational school for Blacks, to be  located just north of town. This was a dream Colonel Allensworth had  shared with them. The Colonel had already received the support of Tulare  County Assemblyman Fred Scott. Overr and Payne campaigned across the  State for the school, but were defeated. In the spring of 1915, when Scott  introduced a bill to establish the school, the Legislature rejected it.  Legislators had been overwhelmed with protests. Among the most  determined opponents of the bill were residents of Black communities in the  Bay Area and Los Angeles. They feared that the school would open the door  to segregated educational facilities throughout California. 

The people of Allensworth made every effort to fulfill their pledge and continue to build their community. But with drying wells and a failing  economy, the settlers, as Joe Durel said, “began to get discouraged and move.” Some stayed on, like Zebedee Hindsman, who built his general store  in 1911 and lived in the town until his death in 1950. Some kept their places while many sold. Although Allensworth was occupied into the 1970s and  has been home to many residents after the pioneers, the town retains its  strongest image as Colonel Allensworth’s dream. It has become the  monument to him and to his community ideals that the townsfolk hoped to  create.