Founded As a Black Utopian Colony, Allensworth Today Is Far From It

Peter H. King, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2008

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A century ago, it was on this flat, barren piece of California [in the southern San Joaquin Valley] that Col. Allen Allensworth, a former slave and retired Army chaplain, came to launch a utopia: a colony of, by and for black Americans.

The town that bore his name, Allensworth declared, would provide sanctuary for “the masses who are without opportunity and without hope,” a refuge from the Jim Crow laws and lynchings of the South. It also would be a place, the colonel told the hundred settlers gathered for the town’s dedication, where they could prove their mettle:

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The colony prospered for half a dozen years or so and then all but withered away. Still, Morrison [Nettie Morrison, Allensworth’s unofficial mayor] said the other day, embarking on an informal tour of the town, “it’s a beautiful history. To see it was a self-governing community, founded by blacks—it just goes to show you, as they say today, yes we can.”

A 73-year-old widow and mother of five, Morrison moved here more than 30 years ago, shortly after the remains of the original colony were preserved as a 240-acre state park. At the time, she recalled, Allensworth was inhabited by many black families. A few had ties to the original pioneers, but most were remnants of a second wave of 30,000 to 40,000 migrants who poured into California in the 1940s to pick cotton and build a better life in the West—the “Black Okies,” they were called.

One by one, the blacks died off or moved away, and now most of Morrison’s neighbors in the town of 500 are immigrant farmworkers from Mexico.

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She seemed less interested in talking about politics, however, than about her town. While historic Allensworth has been lovingly restored and re-created in the state park, the unincorporated town that sits on its southern border presents quite another story.

There is no commercial enterprise in town, no mini-mart, no gas station, no bank. To shop for groceries requires a drive to larger farm towns five or 10 miles away. Some roads are paved. Others are not. A few houses are well-maintained, but many are blighted, burned. Abandoned lots are filled with junk—rusted out cars, farm implements and trailer houses—and taggers have worked the town hard. Feral cats and uncollared dogs roam the streets and fields.

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There have been a few improvements since she arrived—a small Christian church, where every Sunday 10 or 15 worshipers attend services; an elementary school, expanded to accommodate 103 students (one black); and a one-room community center. These adornments have all required uphill campaigns by committed residents. In recent years, townspeople have also battled proposals to place mega-dairies and turkey farms and a grease depository at Allensworth’s borders.

The park, by contrast, offers a well-tended oasis. A few original buildings—Col. Allensworth’s bungalow among them—have been restored. Others are replicas, re-created in accordance with the lone panoramic photograph of the colony still in existence. Spread across the grounds for visitors to tour are replicas of the hotel, the Baptist church, a few stores, an experimental farm and several houses.

Why did it fail?

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Promises to provide plenty of water were not kept. The railroad built a spur line, diverting commerce away from Allensworth. Plans for a polytechnic college were blocked on grounds that an all-black institute would violate the state anti-segregation policy. Some of these setbacks seem rooted in the fact that not all Californians were ready to embrace Col. Allensworth’s dream of a black utopia in the golden land.

The worst blow came in 1914. Allensworth was struck by a motorcycle as he stepped onto Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia, and two days later he died. The cycle had been driven by one D.S. White; he was not charged, but some historians suspect the collision was intentional.

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“A bunch of us were angry,” Ed Pope, a state draftsmen and history buff, recalled in an interview with the Visalia Times. “And we wanted to do something violent after that, because of Martin.” Pope, who died last month, was convinced that this was not the proper response.

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The park was dedicated in 1976. . . . {snip}

Not all her battles have ended in victory.

The next-to-last stop on Morrison’s tour was the Allensworth cemetery south of town. The descendants of pioneers and Black Okies alike have been buried in this sage-covered plot, but by now most of the hand-dug graves are anonymous, marked only by rough wooden crosses. Some have been plowed under, others attacked by scavengers, both human and animal.

It’s as forlorn a place as can be found in California, almost beautiful in its elemental bleakness, and Morrison for a time tried to stir interest in restoring the cemetery, but finally gave it up.

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