Welcome to yet another African-American History Month post! I have so much fun doing these, and I finally have the time to do another for you. I pride myself on bringing you little known black history facts every February, but this one surprised even me!
Today’s black history post is on Allen Allensworth. My California readers have probably heard of the Allensworth State Historic Park and the accompanying museum: Allensworth: A Place. A People. A History. Did you know Allensworth set out to create a city designed specifically for African-Americans where they could live free of political and social persecution? Allensworth, CA still stands today, and though it did not accomplish what it was meant to be, Allen Allensworth was a stellar black American indeed.
Allensworth was born a slave in 1842 Kentucky. The youngest of 13 children, Allen was assigned as a companion to the youngest male child of the plantation master, and, alongside his new companion, was taught to read and write. Educating a slave was a criminal act in that time, and to hide Allen’s talents, his mistress sent him off to live with a Quaker who continued his education. Eventually, his knowledge was discovered, and Allen was immediately sent to work as a field hand.
Allen despised his slave status and considered slavery to be second class citizenry. He knew he wanted out and constantly sought ways to do so. When he was sold to Fred Scruggs, a horse owner and racer, Allen found that he was a talented jockey. Scruggs noticed this, too, and moved Allen from exercise boy to jockey. In 1862, Allensworth traveled to Louisville with his master to a horse race being held there. It was there he met and conversed with Union soldiers of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Upon confessing to them his desire to be a free man, the soldiers helped him conspire an escape. They loaned Allen an infantry coat and covered his face in mud, smuggling him out of Louisville and into the Union military. Allen served as a nursing aide for a time during the Civil War, then joined the US Navy.
It was during this post that he became chaplain for the cavalry of African-Americans serving at the time. IT was President Grover Cleveland who finally appointed him to this position. He maintained as chaplain for 20 years. In addition, he used his position to emphasize the importance of education of enlisted personnel, penning two works that eventually became governing army standard manuals. Shortly before his retirement, Allensworth was promoted to lieutenant colonel, making him the first black officer to ever receive the rank. He retired to Los Angeles after a long career.
Despite such notorious attributes early in his life, Allensworth is most historically well-known for his founding of Allensworth in California. A firm believer in the similar teachings of Booker T. Washington, Allensworth was quite vocal about the African-American’s responsibility to himself first. He emphasized economic frugality (“Don’t put a five dollar hat on a five cent head”) and admonished black Americans to strive to own property and work for themselves. The development of the Allensworth community set out to do precisely that, anchoring to be the first race community that was completely funded and built by African-Americans themselves.
Once Allensworth and his team found land to purchase (a difficult task in itself as Jim Crow was still the law of the land), expansion happened quickly. Within a year, 35 families had moved into the town and immediately the Allensworth colony began to take on a sense of community. The settlement had two general stores, a post office, a school and eventually even a library. A train station stopped through, the land was fertile and fresh water was supplied through a local water works company. Life was good.
The town’s luck began to turn when it lost its leader. Allensworth, while visiting Monrovia for a lecture, was struck by two white boys driving recklessly on a speeding motorcycle. The two were never apprehended and whether or not the assault was accidental or intentional was never determined. Nevertheless, the accident resulted in Allensworth’s death, leaving a distinct lack of leadership in his new colony. Slowly but surely, things in the town started downhill, and before long, its residents began migrating from the colony to find work.
Allen Allensworth, despite what could be considered a failed effort, exemplified the integrity he endeavored to teach. Realizing that nothing changes without someone willing to change, he pushed forward to every goal he ever set in his efforts to establish laws and communities that benefited black Americans. He led by example for those who lives he touched, and his efforts still stand as rules to live by for blacks living in this century.