Spirals of alkaline dust swirl across the hardpan where a century ago 300 black Americans planted alfalfa and corn hoping racial tolerance would take root.
They were led to this remote place by escaped slave Allen Allensworth, a retired Army chaplain and the first black lieutenant colonel. Their goal: to build a prosperous African-American farming community that would change perceptions about people who first suffered slavery, then Jim Crow segregation laws.
“It was more than creating an all-black community,” said Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “There was a national political strategy involved in the founding of Allensworth that makes it unique.”
Allensworth — now a state park with rebuilt clapboard houses, two general stores, a Baptist Church and beloved schoolhouse — will be the site of the town’s centennial celebration this weekend. And thousands of visitors are expected to travel streets named Sojourner Truth and Booker T. Washington.
This community 40 miles northwest of Bakersfield was not the first all-black settlement of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, nor the longest-lived, but to Bunch it was unique in its sociological and political mission.
“It’s a conscious effort to combat racism in a time when there was very little of that,” he said. “It was before the founding of civil rights organizations like the NAACP.”
Allensworth residents believed that education brings success and made the school the largest building in town, then taxed themselves for an additional teacher beyond the one paid for by the state. They built the first free public library in Tulare County.
“I call the Allensworth pioneers ‘Genius People,’ because they had a vision that would uplift an entire race of people,” said Alice Calbert Royal, born here in 1923. “There were so many hurdles for them to overcome in a segregated society.”
Royal has a nursing degree from New York University, a masters of public health degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has traveled the world as a public health nurse. She retired to begin the work in 1985 that would lead to Allensworth’s rebirth as a state park. Release of her book “Allensworth, The Freedom Colony” coincides with the centennial celebration.
“What I saw in this school,” Royal said, sweeping her hand toward the rows of varnished wooden desks, “was the beauty and culture of the African American experience at the turn of the century, which is so totally opposite what they teach in the textbooks, even today.”
Over the 12 years it thrived, the town elected California’s first black justice of the peace and the first black constable. Women had an equal voice in town affairs. Farmers in the valley shipped their crops from the Santa Fe Railroad stop here.
“They earned $5 a day loading grain,” said park interpreter Steven Ptomey, “at a time when $12 a week was the average wage statewide, so that was a lot of money.”
Planners laid out the town with a college campus in the center, but in 1913 the state Legislature voted down funding during in its drive to end segregated institutions.
That defeat was one of four quick blows leading to the town’s early demise. Col. Allensworth was killed on a trip to Los Angeles when two thugs on motorcycles sought to scare the elderly black man crossing the street. Artesian wells that irrigated alfalfa fields dried up. And the white people of nearby Alpaugh persuaded Santa Fe to move the railroad stop seven miles to their town.
By World War I , educated young people began moving away for jobs, and the town began its long decline.
“Out of this community came people who believed at a time when they shouldn’t have believed that anything is possible,” said Bunch. “It was a moment of optimism that permeates to this day that not only is change possible, but that America can live up to its stated creeds.”