In A Calif. Ghost Town, Memories Of Black Pioneers

Posted: March 09, 1986

ALLENSWORTH, Calif. — Maybe it's best to see Allensworth as I saw it - on a cold, gray foggy morning.

Only the howling wind and the banging of metal siding against a deserted shack disrupted the silence. My companions were a few jack rabbits, who sped away at the sound of my footsteps. This was a day when a visitor's mind could easily wander to a time long ago, when settlers came here to build a town on a foundation of dreams.

Allensworth is a ghost town, but it is not like other ghost towns of the West where the promise was gold. The settlers of Allensworth did not seek wealth - only a chance to live with decency and self-respect. Allensworth was the only town in the state founded, settled and governed entirely by blacks.

Thirty years after the town began in 1908, it was nearly deserted. Today, at first glance, it looks more like an uninteresting collection of ramshackle houses than a state park.

Ten years ago, the State of California began restoring four square blocks of Allensworth to their appearance of 1908 to 1918 - when the population was as large as 300. The Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park was established to recognize Allensworth's settlers and other black pioneers for their contributions to the development of the state.

It is about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in Tulare County, 30 miles north of Bakersfield on State Route 43.

LITTLE KNOWN

Not many people visit, though, partially because the park is in an area better known for cotton fields than tourist attractions. Last year, only about 7,000 people came, making Allensworth one of the least used California state parks. Few campers have discovered the park's campground, which opened in May.

One ranger and a maintenance man run the place. A small visitor center has photographic displays and a theater with a 30-minute film. Admission to the park is free.

Overnight visitors can choose from 15 sites in the campground, which is a half-minute walk from the historic area. The fee is $6.

Although the park honors all black pioneers, it focuses on the town's founder, Allen Allensworth, born a slave in Kentucky in 1842. During the next 20 years he was sold three times, once for trying to read and write. He was freed from slavery during the Civil War.

During the next 20 years, he served briefly in the Navy, owned two restaurants and was ordained a Baptist minister.

In 1886, he joined the all-black 24th Army Infantry as a chaplin. Twenty years later he retired as a lieutenant colonel, the highest ranking black in the armed forces at the time.

During his military travels, Allensworth noticed that many blacks were moving to California to escape discrimination. In 1906, retired from the Army, Allensworth himself headed west.

For a long time, he had dreamed of finding a place where blacks could own property and develop their potential free of discrimination. He heard about the rich land in the southern San Joaquin Valley, so he went to investigate. What he found was a fertile land, reasonably priced, with abundant water. Two years later, in 1908, Allensworth had achieved his dream.

STEADY GROWTH

The Tulare Register reported, "The town, which is to be called Allensworth, is to enable colored people to live on an equity with whites and to encourage industry and thrift in the race."

William Wells was one of the early settlers. He came, he said long ago, ''to prove to the white man beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Negro is capable of self-respect and self-control."

As word of Allensworth spread, the town grew. Blacks bought town lots, started farms and built homes. They established public utilities and built a school. Before long, the town had a drug store, hotel, bakery, livery stable, machine shop, post office, railroad ticket office, general store and three churches. Allensworth's wife, Josephine, started a library that grew to have one of the largest circulations in the state. In 1914, Allensworth became a voting precinct and a judicial district.

Unfortunately, prosperity did not last long. The town's water supply began to dwindle and turn bad as the water table lowered because of agricultural demand. By the 1930s, the problem had become so acute that most residents moved away.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the town had come in 1914, when Allensworth was killed accidently by a motorcyclist. The colonel's daughter wrote that his death "deprived the town of its leadership."

In 1976, the state established the 24-acre park in what remained of the decaying town. Today, about two dozen buildings are standing. Eventually, most will be restored or rebuilt to their original appearance. The timetable for the restoration is uncertain; it could take five years or 20 years, depending on state funding.

So far, four buildings have been restored - the schoolhouse, a replica of Allensworth's home, Singleton's General Store and Post Office (which will soon be re-opened by a concessionaire) and Gross' Drug Store.

Funding recently was approved to build a replica of the library, which burned down several years ago. Long-range plans include restoration of the eight-room hotel, which would again welcome overnight guests (although the rate of 75 cents presumably would be raised).

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is open all year; the visitor center is open most days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors should plan to spend an hour or two to see everything.

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