ALLENSWORTH (CBS SF) — California was once the promise land for a former slave who settled a town where his dreams of freedom would become a reality.
That place still exists. Its called Allensworth and if you didn’t know it was here, you might never find it.
This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it former agricultural town, smack in the middle of California, four hours from San Francisco, three hours from Los Angeles, suspended in time – looks just the way it did 100 years ago.
Today Allensworth has been preserved as a California state historic park.
But it’s not just any park.
“This is the only California park that deals with black history,” says park ranger Steven Ptomey. “It’s very unique in that.”
In its heyday, Allensworth was not just any town.
“This was the only endeavor, especially in California that was fully financed, governed, built and designed by African Americans solely,” says Ptomey. “There was no one else involved in that outside the black community.”
Steven Ptomey knows Allensworth better than most anyone. He’s the resident park interpreter, an archaeologist by trade. He has spent years studying Allensworth and the man it is named for, Colonel Allen Allensworth.
“He was born in 1842, born a slave, got his freedom during the civil war, served in the US Navy, was a restaurateur, then got the call to go into the ministry, became an ordained Baptist minister, got his doctorate in theology from the same seminary as Booker T. Washington and then got an appointment as the Chaplin of the 24th Infantry Regiment one of four all-black regiments in 1884 where he served until 1906,” says Ptomey. “And upon his retirement he was the highest ranking African American officer in the US Army. He was also only the second man in history at the time to receive the rank of Lt. Col as a Chaplin.”
But Colonel Allensworth wasn’t finished making history. In the early 20th centuy he decided his next venture would be wildly ambitious.
He had a vision for California.
“Even though they were 50 years out of slavery, they were physically free but they were not economically free so his idea was to found a community where they could live apart and prove that they were worthy of everything that America had to offer by being businessmen and entrepreneurs and gentleman farmers if you would,” says Ptomey.
It was a time in history when racism dictated where African Americans could live and where they could not. There were Jim Crow laws in the South and aggressive redlining throughout the country, including California.
“They had doctrines and covenants on pieces of property where they would agree not to sell to a person of color,” adds Ptomey.
Allensworth was supposed to solve those problems as a utopian black community.
Looking out from the library you could see the First Baptist Church. A brown building was the home of the Philips family. Off to the left is the Colonel’s home. There was a school house a hotel, a general store, and fertile land as far as the eye could see.
So what would a typical day in Allentown be like?
“Overall this was a small town and this was a quiet, country life,” says Ptomey. “They never had any serious crime in Allensworth during the historic period. They had a town Constable. He only investigated one robbery and the guy who got caught gave everything back.”
At its peak, it was a town of some 250 people. Families like Alice and James Hackett. They took a chance and moved to Allensworth from Alameda. Their home looks like a page from history — a piano, chandeliers, lace doilies — filled with turn-of-the-century antiques.
There were some conveniences in Allensworth. The Santa Fe Pacific Railroad line cut right through town.
Col. Allensworth hoped residents could live off the land, growing crops thanks to the Tulare Lake bed. But that was a crucial miscalculation. About a decade after the town was established, the water would dry up.
“The drought that happens in 1913-1914 — The railheads moved from Allensworth to Alpaw, and right around that same time, the Colonel was killed in 1914. He was hit by a motorcyclist.
His death ended one of the Colonel’s greatest dreams for Allentown.
“They lost their bid to build a black college here,” says Ptomey. “They were going to build the Tuskegee of the West, a black polytechnical college. That was killed in the California legislature after the death of the Colonel because he was the guy with the political connections.”
Ptomey believes had they built that college here, Allensworth probably would have survived into the 20th century as a more thriving community.
Nonetheless, Colonel Allensworth’s dream lasted several years. In 1915, the town was still thriving.
But as the 1920’s approached, Allensworth declined. World War 2 dealt a final crushing blow to the town. After the war, its educated young people migrated to places like Richmond, California, abandoning farm work for factory jobs.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, some fifty years after the demise of Allensworth, that it was named a state park. The town was restored back to its original glory and is now in the National Registry of historic places.
Tourists travel from far and wide to see Allensworth, like Don Billberry and Betty Lee from Stockton.
Lee believes Allensworth holds an important place in history.
“You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been,” she said. “History is really important for us, and especially black history.”
It is a testament to true grit.
“They had to be really strong people to be out here in the middle of nowhere not really knowing what your future held, and to keep going anyway,” says Lee. “It’s a whole lot of drive, determination and just the will to say ‘we can make a difference in this world.’”
“It’s still standing after 100 years. Can you imagine? It’s still standing,” says Lee.
As short-lived as its life span was, Allentown made its mark and left a legacy for generations to come.
For more information, directions and events, go to the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park web page.