Sam McManis

Discoveries: At Allensworth State Park, the modern mission is awareness

Allensworth State Park, shown above in 2008, has nine re-created buildings, including the school in the background. An African American settlement was founded there in 1908.
Allensworth State Park, shown above in 2008, has nine re-created buildings, including the school in the background. An African American settlement was founded there in 1908. Fresno Bee file

Front-porch conversations tend to rise up like a cool breeze, then flag and meander in the heat of day. Thoughts turn to the past, how everything was different – better, much better – how nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Wave your fan all you like, stir that stagnant air to make the blistering afternoon seem less kiln-like, but it won’t bring back times past.

Still, there is a simple pleasure derived merely in the remembering. So Leah Green, leaning on the porch railing outside a mint-green replica of the Tulare County Free Library at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park 40 miles northwest of Bakersfield, pressed on, regaling three generations of listeners sitting on a wooden bench.

“What you see now is nothing like what Allensworth was,” said Green, in her 50s, fingering her white pearl necklace. “As a child, I did have the opportunity to visit. I had an auntie with a house right over the railroad tracks. It had a cool porch wrapped all the way around it. We’d spend a week there. Most of the greenery I saw as a child, it was right over there. When I was a kid, that was as far as you could go. The rest was marsh land. Swampy. You had all kinds of birds you could see, exotic ones.

“It’s bone dry now. Bone dry.”

She paused to let it sink in. All that could be seen now from the library porch, in any direction, was parched plains, a three-day growth of beard stubble of dried grassland, bereft of water and crops.

Yet, thanks to the state-park designation bestowed upon the erstwhile town of Allensworth, the first African American-run settlement in California in the early 1900s, visitors can get at least a reconstituted idea of what life was like during its heyday, 1908 to 1918, and how it tried to remain a community during the Great Depression and war years before succumbing to ghost-town status. Nine buildings, all restorations, dot the griddle-flat dusty ground. A schoolhouse. A general store. The First Baptist Church. The library. Homes, including that of Col. Allen Allensworth, the former slave turned U.S. Army chaplain turned businessman bent on creating an agrarian community for people of color at a time when segregation was the law of the land.

Green, whose lineage dates to one of the settlement’s original families, cherishes the preservation of this history. Don’t get her wrong. She often visits and donned her a crisp, elegant sleeveless white summer dress last month for the annual Juneteenth festivities, which drew about a thousand celebrants. She clutched a copy of Alice C. Royal’s oral history of the era, “Allensworth, The Freedom Colony,” as if it were the good book itself, flipping pages to show faded photos of families at work and play.

But Allensworth today simply pales compared to her family’s memory of the place.

“My auntie, she used to describe Allensworth as paradise,” Green said. “That, if you wanted to be as close to heaven as you can get, it’d be here at Allensworth. So, you had to believe things were green then. I mean, green. You had to know it was rich in fertile ground because they grew everything from alfalfa to corn to whatever crop you wanted. They raised cattle. And everything was marketable through that rail line there. My auntie used to talk about the artesian wells. You could walk down the street and water would spring up, auntie said.”

You could dwell on the multiple reasons for Allensworth’s demise. How those artesian wells and other sources of groundwater dried up thanks to damming in the foothills and thirsty senior water rights holders. How white farmers did not like having to deal with African Americans at the Allensworth depot station along the Santa Fe line, so a spur was created to bypass the town. How the death of Col. Allensworth in a traffic accident in Southern California in 1914 deprived the citizenry of its civic leader and moral compass. How the families scattered like so much seed in the wind in the postwar years, searching for a better opportunity than Allensworth once promised.

You could do all that, but descendents of original Allensworth residents, as well as visitors with a keen sense of history, would rather celebrate the achievement, brief though it may have been, of an autonomous African American community in a time of stringent segregation.

Allensworth was a dreamer, half a century before Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Born into slavery and separated from his family at age 12, he fled to the North and fought in the Civil War and later ascended to lieutenant colonel and became an Army chaplain in 1884. He retired to California in 1906 with plans to set up a black township like ones that thrived in Boley, Okla., and Nicodemus, Kan. Blacks were fleeing the South, where their work options were limited to sharecropping or serving white families, and the racial antagonism was such that lynching of black men was still prevalent.

Southern California, however, proved not much more welcoming to blacks, including Allensworth, according to historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in a 2008 interview with NPR. Allensworth and four partners bought 800 acres between the farm towns of Earlimart and Alpaugh and “their hope would be that would help to change the racial dynamics in this country,” Bunch told NPR.

Early in the 20th century, black townships were seen as a way for African Americans to have a measure of autonomy in a land, including California, still under Jim Crow laws. Allensworth’s dream was self-sufficiency through farming, making use of Central Valley land that white landowners deemed not suitable for cultivation. This agrarian township hoped to take root and sprout and eventually morph into an economically diverse community. Allensworth, friends with Booker T. Washington, also wanted to bring higher education to residents and sought to bring culture (symphony, choir) to the nascent town.

In his opening remarks at the official unveiling of the settlement in 1909, a year after families took root, Allensworth delivered a stirring speech, saying, “A large number of our fellow countrymen have been taught for generations that the Negro is incapable of the highest development of citizenship. This they believe and will continue to think until we show them they are mistaken. If we expect to be given due credit for our efforts and achievements, they must be made where they will stand out distinctly and alone.”

Close to 300 families took up Allensworth’s call. By 1910, the town named for its founder was a thriving agrarian community. Allensworth had its own choir and band, and a school so popular that a bigger one had to be built. Its crops shipped out on the Santa Fe railroad fed people several states away. Allensworth even had plans to build a “Tuskegee of the West,” a vocational school like the one in Alabama.

But you know the story: The wells dried up, crops failed, the railroad left because of the objections of white neighbors, the Great Depression hit, and the town dwindled in population.

It held on until the late 1960s, but with farming jobs geared toward migrant labor, families scattered south to Bakersfield and beyond or north to Fresno. As the state park brochure simply puts it, “By 1973, it no longer appeared on the California map.”

It remains in people’s hearts, though.

George Finley, Allensworth school principal from 1954 to 1965 and past president of the nonprofit that helps stage educational activities at the site, gives credit to the late Ed Pope for prodding state parks officials to add Allensworth to its ranks. Pope grew up in Allensworth and wanted to preserve that special time and place. He was battling a developer, who wanted to snatch up the property and turn it into a resort. Pope won out. In 1976, Allensworth became a state historic park.

But battles weren’t over, Finley said.

“It’s been a struggle the whole time,” Finley said. “They (the state) didn’t want to do this, originally. They just wanted to put a marker on the highway. Then they wanted to build two dairies right next to us. Then a chicken ranch, and something involving oil and manure, too. There’s been (arsenic) in the water. We’ve won every fight they’ve put in front of us.”

The current fight: apathy.

Walk up to anybody on a street and say, ‘Allensworth,’ and they’ll say ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ Most people don’t realize there were such things as black towns.

Stephen Hill, president, Friends of Allensworth

“We used to get 10,000 people here at one time,” said Finley, referring to events such as the Juneteenth celebration, the February Black History Month event and the annual October re-dedication ceremony. “We don’t have the membership we had before. We need to get the word out and get people educated about it.”

The park itself is a fount of education. But Stephen Hill of San Diego, current president of the Friends of Allensworth, says getting the word to people, especially younger generations, has been a challenge.

“Walk up to anybody on a (city) street and say, ‘Allensworth,’ and they’ll say ‘Who?’ ‘What?’” Hill said. “Most people don’t realize there were such things as black towns. But when you tell them, they are fascinated by it.”

Part of the reason for the low profile, said Amanda Moore, who taught at Allensworth school in the early 1960s, is institutional.

“Tulare County didn’t make that information about Allensworth known back then,” she said. “It wasn’t in the (curriculum) material.”

A young mother from San Francisco, Taschelle Herron-Lane, said she makes it a point to bring her girls to Allensworth at least once a year.

“This is good to see that the black family still exists, that there’s a community of African American farm families,” she said. “We like to show the girls. This is proof.”

Back on the shaded front porch of the library, Leah Green was happy to show anyone who asked proof of what Allensworth once was. She cracked open the history book, delicately licked her index finger and flipped through some pages before stopping and stabbing her finger at a fuzzy black-and-white snapshot.

“This is my grandmother,” she said. “One of the first children born in Allensworth. She lived to be 100. As a young child, I remember traveling with my mom and grandmom up and down California, where they’d talk to people about Allensworth and how important it was to preserve this place. I had no choice. I had to go along. Now I have a choice, and I’m here. Right here.”

Allensworth State Historical Park

4011 Grant Drive, Earlimart