Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 7, 1842, Allen Allensworth escaped from slavery to work with Union forces in the Civil War. He later worked as a restaurateur, Freedman's Bureau educator and military chaplain before founding the all-black California colony of Allensworth in 1908. He died under mysterious circumstances on September 14, 1914, with the town of Allensworth eventually becoming a state park.
Born Into Slavery
Allen Allensworth was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 7, 1842, into the slavery system of the antebellum South. At the behest of his mother Phyllis, he learned to read from their master's son. It was found out and Allensworth was sent to a Quaker household, eventually sold from the Louisville estate in the mid-1850s.
During his teens he ran away twice due to the brutal conditions of the next plantation he was held at, and then was sold to Fred Scruggs, who intended to train Allensworth to be a jockey. With the Civil War underway and Northern forces entering Kentucky, Allensworth escaped and made his way to Union forces, working as a nursing assistant and then entering the Navy, serving until 1865.
Becomes Military Chaplain
Allensworth next opened two restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri, with his brother and studied at the Baptist Theological School in Nashville, Tennessee, becoming a minister at the start of the 1870s. After twice serving as a Republican National Convention delegate, Allensworth reached out to governmental authorities in hopes of being made a military chaplain. He succeeded and was appointed on April 1, 1886, to the 24th Infantry in Oklahoma, an African-American "Buffalo Soldier" regiment in which he served for two decades.
Allensworth also wed educator and musician Josephine Leavell in 1887, with the couple going on to have two daughters.
In addition to his spiritual duties, Allensworth coordinated groundbreaking educational programs for his constituency and was later sent overseas to the Philippines. After his return to the states, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time of his retirement in 1906, becoming the top ranked African-American officer of the day.
Founds Town of Allensworth
Allensworth subsequently lectured nationally on African-American uplift in the vein of Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. In 1908, he and several other community leaders founded the California Colony and Home Promotion Association to found the town of Allensworth, located in Tulare County in the state's Central Valley. Allensworth became the first all-African-American township in California founded and financed by black citizens, with the goal for its denizens to live free of the prejudice and violence encountered in other parts of the U.S.
The town at one point was able to house at least several dozen residents and offer an active civic and social life. But it faced major troubles with no follow-through from the Pacific Farming Company over pledged water allotments and the Santa Fe Railroad's decision to provide no stop at Allensworth.
Mysterious Death and Legacy
Allen Allensworth died on September 14, 1914, after being struck by a motorcycle when getting off a streetcar in Los Angeles, on his way to a speaking engagement, with continued speculation on whether the incident was an accident or intentional.
The town of Allensworth, though it was eventually abandoned, was declared a state historic park in 1974, with much of its edifices restored and refurbished as part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
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