“Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors,
America will never be whole.” – Author unknown
This is my contribution to the legacy of my people in this year of 2016, in this month of February as we celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans in this country. Historical towns founded and colonialized by African Americans is rarely written about or discussed. February is the quintessential month to celebrate, write about, learn and discuss African Americans legacy and contributions to America.
California first African American town Allensworth, California:
It was late December 2015 when we decided to just drive through this dusty lifeless state park. We were scouting it a Fashion Pictorial to submit with this article. It was over casted, foggy, isolated, and an eerie day, but I could hear the ancestors say, “… tell our story. They have to know about Allensworth.” Initially, I just wanted to“…get the hell out of here.” This was not a place to have a flat tire or car problems. Yet I could visualize images of a people who came with so much hope for a better life. A place where segregation and racial limitations were non-existent. A place of peace, joy, love, and safety. I felt their spirits and I heard their cries. I visualized the residents at the Barbershop, at the Library, the General Store, Baptist Church, and children at the School House. The livestock and gardens. The hustle and bustle of a town in the 1909. This is a story of a people who were brought to a strange world. These people, my people, without their language, their culture or traditions. These people, my people, built this great land, the land of United States of America.
My replied to the residents of Allensworth: “I shall tell the world about Allensworth! I have a voice, I have the resources, and I have the opportunity.”
Allensworth, My Legacy:
Although I cannot trace my family roots back to West Africa nor the slave ship that brought the traumatized remnants of an African woman who would become my great great grandmother. My legacy in America only begins with the emergence of the Native American and African blood which flows through my veins. Although my fraternal Grandmother was not a resident of Allensworth, she moved only a few miles away from the historical landmark in the mid-eighties. She had to know the legacy of this African American Colony. She and my father purchased an acre of land each in Allensworth, California. It was my Grandmother’s sanctuary away from the chaos of the city. It was her home in the country with a huge garden and chickens. We called it “Green Acres,” because it reminded us of the television show. It was our rest stop on the voyage from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles, California.
The story of Allensworth, California
The 1900’s was an exciting era. It was the era of W.E. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. They debated their manifestoes of equality, socially and financial policies for the newly freed people. In 1909, the National Association for Advancement the Colored People (NAACP) was founded in New York and led by Dubois. In 1909, the colony of Allensworth began to rise from the countryside. It was the first town in California founded, financed and governed by African Americans. In 1909, the colony of Allensworth began to rise from the countryside. African Americans who were inspired by the sheer reputation of Colonel Allensworth came from all over the United States. By 1910, residents had built a small school. In 1912, Allensworth became California’s First African American school district. The Colony was self-contained with a Restaurant, First Baptist Church, Bakery, two General Stores, Hotel, Barber Shop, Drug Store, Library, and Post Office. In 1914, the town became a judicial district.
Colonel Allen Allensworth:
As an adult, I learned that our “Green Acres” were really Allensworth, California – a historical African American town founded by Colonel Allen Allensworth. He was an Army Chaplin, educator, and orator.
Born a slave on April 7, 1842 in Louisville, Kentucky, he was intelligent and eager to learn how to read and write by playing educational games with his master’s son. At 12 years old he was sent away for violating the law that prohibited slaves from learning how to read and write. During his youth, despite laws forbidding the education of slaves. After two unsuccessful escape attempts, he finally succeeded during the initial years of the Civil War.
In 1862, he fled slavery and joined the Union Navy and received an honorable discharged as a chief petty officer. In 1862, the former slave worked as a civilian aide to the 44th Illinois volunteer infantry, but this service did not satisfy Allensworth. On April 3, 1863, he became a seaman, first class, of the Union Navy. He left the navy in April 1865 with the rank of first class petty officer. In 1886, he achieved his goal of ascertaining a formal education.
During Reconstruction, Allensworth underwent a religious conversion and decided to study theology at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tenn. While at the university, he met and later married Josephine Leavell. After completing his studies, Allensworth maintained several pulpits in and around his native Louisville. He was one of Kentucky’s delegates to the Republic National convention in 1880 and 1884.
In April 1886, he was appointed chaplain of the 24th Infantry with the rank of captain which was one of the army’s four African American regiments for 20 years. During those years, the captain saw to the troops’ spiritual and educational needs. He received a doctorate of theology. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1906. Colonel Lieutenant Allensworth (Dr.) was the first African American to attain such a high rank. After he retired, he lectured throughout the Midwest and eastern states. He adopted Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of the need for the ex-slave to become self-sufficient through education and hard work.
The Birth of Allensworth, California:
In 1906 he settled in Los Angeles. He met an educator named Professor William Payne who had recently relocated to Pasadena, California. Payne and Allensworth were kindred souls in the struggle to improve their race. Payne, a graduate of Denison University and a West Virginia native, had spent his youth in Corning, Ohio prior to settling in Pasadena in 1906. He had been an assistant principal at the Rendsvile School and a professor at the West Virginia Colored Institute. Arriving in California, however, Payne soon discovered that teaching position were rare for African American scholars. They both had a mutual desire to live in a world where African Americans could live in peace and without the realm of hatred, prejudice, and discrimination. They merged their values and resources and formed the California Colony and Home Promotion Association in 1908 and purchased 800 acres along the Santa Fe railroad line.
In 1913, residents formed the Allensworth Rural Water Company and took control of the water systems from Pacific Farming Company, because water was always a major problem. The residents were unable to raise money to continuously drill more wells. By 1914, Allensworth had a lowered water system. Moreover, the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop from Allensworth to nearby Alpaught which was the economic base for the town. Drought, poor crops, and a poor water systems was not comparable to what was to come.
On September 15, 1914, the town suffered a tragic lost. While preparing to preach in a town in Southern California, he crossed the street he was struck and killed suspiciously by two men on a motorcycle who claimed that an excited Allensworth was responsible for the accident, but after the colonel’s family filed a legal complaint the two were arrested in late September. After funeral services at the Second Baptist church of Los Angeles, with a military honor guard of both races, Colonel Allensworth was interred at the Rosedale Cemetery on September 18, 1914. The economic depression which followed World War I left resident seeking opportunities outside the town of Allensworth.
Arsenic was found in the water systems, and the community continued to reel under the long-standing water issues. In 1918, the community was able to rid itself of the tax burden and begin to upgrade the pumping machinery, but by then the water table had dropped too low and the equipment was ineffective. The Allensworth community was devastated, but no one could replace the colonel and without water spiritual guidance and leadership, the community began to disintegrate. By 1920, the two leading figures, William Payne and Josephine Allensworth had left the area. Payne accepted a teaching job at El Centro, while Mrs. Allensworth returned to Los Angeles to live with her daughter, Nella. The exodus continued during the years of the Great Depression and World War II.
Other Historical African American Cities:
Allensworth, California was the first founded by and for African Americans. However, there are many others throughout these United States of America. Here are a few:
Fort Mose, Florida, Established in 1738 by Colonial Spanish Florida’s Governor Manuel Montiano, Fort Mose gave sanctuary to Africans challenging enslavement in the English Colony of Carolina. Approximately 100 Africans lived at Fort Mose, forming more than 20 households.
Senceca Village, New York, 264 prominent African American residents between 1825 – 1857. Seneca Village was Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners. By the 1840s, it had become a multi-ethnic community African Americans, Irish, and German immigrants, and perhaps a few Native Americans. In 1855, the New York State Census reported approximately 264 individuals living in the village. There were three churches, as well as a school and several cemeteries. Within two years, Seneca Village would be razed and its identity erased by the creation of Central Park.
Five Points District, N.Y: High Stakes in Lower Manhattan 1830’s-1860’s Manhattan’s first African American settlement. Five Points District, N.Y.: High Stakes in Lower Manhattan Today we know it as Wall Street, but from the 1830s to the 1860s, this area was the site of Manhattan’s first free African American settlement. Located on the five-cornered intersection of what were then Anthony, Cross, Orange and Little Water streets
Weeksville, New York, A refuge for Southerners and Northerners Weeksville was a nineteenth century free community located in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York. In 1838, only 11 years after slavery ended in New York, Weeksville was formed by a free black man named James Weeks when he purchased a substantial area of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free African American man. Weeks then encouraged other blacks to settle on the property as he sold lots to the newcomers who named the community Weeksville. It is remembered today as a historic site for its community programs, urban employment opportunities, and the promotion of racial respectability.
Greenwood, Oklahoma: “The Black Wall Street” In 1921, Greenwood, a successful, all-African American community in Tulsa, was the site of the deadliest race riot in U.S. history. For the inhabitants of “the Black Wall Street,” life would never be the same. After the civil war many African-Americans settled in Oklahoma because of employment opportunities from the oil fields. Around 1908 the community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was established. The Daily Tulsa Star was an African-American owned newspaper. Businesses owned by African-Americans flourished. Their communities were the best. Their schools were excellent. However, because of jealousy, deceit, and discrimination, Greenwood was burned to the ground by white racists on June 1, 1921.