Allensworth State Historic Park – “The Town That Refused to Die”

LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Most people have probably never heard of Allensworth, California – a remote community off Highway 99 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But Allensworth is fundamental to California’s story.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Allensworth, California was the only town in the state to be founded, funded and governed solely by African Americans. Its story is one of great success and tremendous loss. It’s also one of hope and perseverance.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: In 1908, Colonel Allen Allensworth came to California with a dream: to create a better life – not just for himself, but for *all African-Americans.
STEVE TOMEY: Col Allensworth is an all-American hero. A man who was born a slave in 1842, taught himself how to read and write, served in the union army and union navy, established a successful restaurant, went into the ministry, and then eventually secured himself a position as chaplain for the 24th infantry, served across the west, and when he retired he said “we need a place to call our own.”
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: That’s Steve Tomey, Interpreter for Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. He says Allensworth chose the Central Valley area in Tulare County because land was affordable and water was plentiful. He built a school, a library and a hotel, with plans for a university that would be the Tuskegee of the West. Unfortunately Allensworth’s utopia was short-lived. Steve Tomey:
TOMEY: It wasn’t one thing that killed the town. It was a series of events and the timing. You know, the Colonel died, they lost their water rights, they couldn’t build the college they had planned to build, and then the depression hit, and then once WWII hit, and all the people started leaving for jobs, defense factory jobs, that was just the death knoll.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: By the 1970s Allensworth was a ghost-town. Buildings were crumbling. Most people had moved away. There wasn’t even a sign letting folks know Allensworth existed. But former resident Cornelius Ed Pope joined forces with historic preservationists to save Allensworth. Pope, who worked for the California State Department of Parks and Recreation (waiting to see if this will change) at the time, was instrumental in turning the forgotten town into a state historic park in 1976. (waiting for confirmation of this) He says preserving Allensworth is important because it connects California to its past.
POPE: This is kind of like an umbilical cord and it’s the only linkage that folks can get as to how black people lived in this state a hundred years ago.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Today visitors can see Allensworth as it was back in the Colonel’s day. His home and the original schoolhouse still stand. Several other homes and buildings have been rebuilt and restored exactly as they were.
AMBI ALICE ROYALE: This is my grandparent’s home. So if you will make the rounds…
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Alice Royal’s grandparents – James Alexander and Alice Hackett, along with *three hundred families – moved to Allensworth in the early part of the 20th century. Royal was born in the third bedroom of her grandparents’ home on January 25, 1923. Today the 85-year-old leads tours and tells stories of what it was like in the old days. Her face lights up when she talks about her childhood – especially when she remembers her grandmother.
ROYAL: We would just follow her around everywhere – because she had across the lot chickens and cows and this whole lot next door was the garden – her garden where she had all kinds of vegetables and herbs. And then at nighttime with my aunt as a teacher – it was teach all the time – educate all the time. So we would go on long walks with my two brothers. I learned the celestial bodies. We learned something about the life of the wild stock that surrounded us. We learned nature.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Steve Tomey says there’s more proof education was prized by the community.
TOMEY: From a historian’s perspective, usually the biggest building in town is the most important. And what’s the most important building in town, what’s the biggest building? It’s the school.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Now the entire town of Allensworth serves as a classroom. Tomey himself continues to learn and share new discoveries about Allensworth.
TOMEY: During the excavation of the hotel, they found thousands of duck bills under the structure – which means they were living off ducks. And of course that makes perfect sense since Allensworth is on the Pacific Flyway.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Over the years, Allensworth has faced dozens of obstacles and setbacks. Besides the Colonel’s untimely death and revoked water rights, the Santa Fe railroad – which used to stop in town – instead began bypassing the area completely in 1914, pretty much strangling the economy. In more recent times, Allensworth activitists have fought back encroaching commercial development – like a turkey farm and an industrial food grease dump. Just last year a couple of mega-dairies – which would have brought 16,000 cows and tons of waste and pollution – threatened the park. Resident Nettie Morrison is Chair of the Allensworth Community Council – most people call her *mayor:
MORRISON: Just because Allensworth is a poverty area does not mean we will be stepped on any longer. And we had to rise up.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Morrison and other park supporters went to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to fight the dairy’s development. After months of negotiation, Allensworth was saved – again. Both the California State Senate and the Assembly passed a bill blocking all dairies and other animal feeding operations from operating within 2.5 miles of the park.
MORRISON: Our people have fought all our lives. We’ve always had to struggle. And this is just another one of those struggles.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: And yet another struggle is making sure the story of Allensworth is told. Alice Royal says that’s starting to happen. After years of trying to get the history of Allensworth included in elementary school curriculum, Harcourt Brace finally features a section about Allensworth in their fourth grade social studies textbooks. Mayor Nettie Morrison says that’s a testament to the spirit of Allensworth.
MORRISON: Allensworth is known as the town that refused to die. It didn’t die then, and it’s not going to now.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: Steve Tomey agrees and says Allensworth is one of a kind.
TOMEY: It is something very unique – There’s only one town like this on the West Coast – we don’t have anything like this in state parks.
LUNDSTEN/MOGLEN: You can find out more about *visiting Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park at 2008 marks Allensworth’s Centennial. Check the website for celebration events to be held throughout the year.
OUTRO: If you want to help out the California State Park system, join our 90,000 member-driven community by visiting the California State Parks Foundation on the web at