Allensworth State Historic Park honors California’s only all-Black town
After being freed from slavery, some former slaves went on to establish all-Black towns around the country. In California, the only “Freedmen’s Town” founded and governed by African Americans was Allensworth in the state’s Central Valley, now a California State Historic Park worth a visit.
I was intent on getting to Allensworth, having only recently read about this former all-Black “Freedmen’s Town” not far from Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley. How could I be a California native and never even have heard of this historic place, a state park since 1976? What is now Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is not directly on the major highways that slice California from north to south. Meaning you must plan to get to what was California’s only all-Black-governed town. And you must.
The current state park is about 10 miles west of Highway 99 and about 35 miles east of Interstate 5. I came in from Interstate 5, bumping along pothole-filled roads, dodging tumbleweeds blowing across the road, puttering through a couple of collections of rundown buildings on the road that could hardly even be called towns – a burg called Alpaugh the largest at about a thousand people, and – as I later discovered – it was a key factor in Allensworth’s decline.
How did the all-Black town of Allensworth end up in central California?
More than a century ago, Colonel Allen Allensworth, born a slave in Kentucky, came to California seeking a townsite where he could establish a town that would be founded, funded, and fully governed by Blacks, many of whom had been or were descendants of slaves. His dream, appropriately named Allensworth, became a reality after he purchased a flat, dry, dusty plot of 800 acres where Blacks could live independently and get an education, too. Born into slavery in 1842, he had been punished as a boy for trying to learn to read and write.
Situated right on the Santa Fe rail line, the town of Allensworth prospered greatly after it was founded in 1908 since its depot was the way for supplies, mail, and people to get to and from the many farms in the area. After Allensworth himself was tragically killed after being hit by motorcycles in 1914, the town lost some momentum, but still brought in good money with the depot. But slow declines and a competing railway spur (built by, yes, THAT Alpaugh) forced the Allensworth depot’s closure in 1930, which was eventually the death knell for the community.
The town had its own school district, judicial district, and water company. Called a visionary and a true lover of education, Allensworth fled slavery to join the Union Navy, finally gained the formal education he yearned for, earned a doctorate in theology, and retired as a lieutenant colonel – the first African American to achieve such a rank. Thus, a school, church and vibrant community were important to him at his Freedmen’s town called Allensworth.
Touring Allensworth State Historic Park
After bumping along a bit, I found my final turn from State Route 43 across the railroad tracks to the park’s entrance. Since California’s Central Valley is nearly flat as a pancake, I stopped and could scan across the horizon, seeing a dusty grid of streets dotted with a few buildings. No other cars were in sight, and occasionally big billows of dust would roll across the area. The California historic townsite itself isn’t much more than a half-mile square. The only sound was the flagpole chain rhythmically thwacking the pole in the wind.
I decided to drive in (the park is accessible by both car and is bike-friendly, too) after grabbing a brochure and paying my park entrance fee. Allensworth park felt rather lonely – but not just because all state parks’ visitor centers and facilities were still shuttered due to COVID when I visited Allensworth in April 2021. Turns out there is not enough staff for Allensworth at any time. Rabbits hopping across the road were my only companions.
A ranger did cruise past, and she told me that there is generally not any staff there at all – appointment only. Visitors – in normal non-pandemic times – include a lot of school groups or people who may see a sign on one of the major thoroughfares and get curious. There is actually a campground at the back of the park where a couple of vehicles had setup, and a shaded picnic area toward the back could be a nice place for a break on a California road trip.
Before she departed, the ranger warned me to watch out for rattlesnakes and told me I could of course peek in all the windows. But to help the curious about this all-Black historic town sans docents and state park staff, she also mentioned other resources:
- Friends of Allensworth is a non-profit established to keep its legacy alive.
- A virtual tour by photos, including the insides of some buildings, is available on the park website.
- You can also “walk the streets” on Google Maps . Just click on the icon of the man on satellite view and move him to a street to get a look.
As I saw on posts by nearly every building, the best tour of Col. Allensworth State Historic Park when you are there is on your cell phone (there is reception) – and this tour is even accessible from anywhere via the web. Just go to https://allensworth.oncell.com. You will see a photo of Allensworth. Below that, click the “start tour” button to get to 20 numbered stops, in order from the front gate of the park. On your virtual tour you will see a photo of the inside or outside of each building.
Turns out of the about 20 structures standing, only two are original: the old schoolhouse at the back of the park property and the Carter House, which is the farthest from the main entrance, sitting alone on a gated road that continues into the neighboring community.
The other buildings have been re-created to depict as best possible how the town had looked – likely with the help of descendants of original residents who still lived there when the area was acquired in 1974, the ranger noted.
The town’s decline was slow but dramatic. It had even been scheduled to be razed at one point — arsenic was discovered in the drinking water in 1966 after which most remaining residents decided to move away, leaving only 34 families. The town of Allensworth didn’t even appear on the map of California by 1973.
Today, as a California State Historic Park it may not garner a lot of visitors, but it is worth your time on a drive through the Central Valley of California: Allensworth was the only all-Black town in the Golden State, and the insights you can gain by walking the dusty thoroughfares, reading signage, peeking in windows, and imagining the once proud, bustling town is immense. The former library stands tall, still bearing its Tulare County Free Library sign – Col. Allensworth had at the time donated his extensive collection of books to the library in his quest to share the joy of education.
The most love had clearly been invested in re-creating Col. Allensworth’s home. Many of the other buildings sit on a plot of barren dirt. The Allensworth home is surrounded by a neatly manicured lawn with trim walkways leading to the front door or around the house. A gazebo ready for flowering vines straddles the walkway. The neat blue clapboard home with a front porch was considered a model for its day.
I drove slowly down every street, stopping at each building to read the signs and admire the ingenuity of founding this town in this hot valley, the only all-Black town that had been in California. Once I had to dash for my car, leap in and slam the door quickly when a thick dust storm blew across. No matter how tough the location, Allensworth survived for more than two decades – and descendants still live in the area.
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