Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth
Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842, the youngest of thirteen children. Over the years his family was spread apart; one of his older sisters escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad, five of his brothers were sold to plantations in the deeper parts of the South, and another sister purchased her freedom in 1849. As a young boy, Allen was assigned to his masters son of a similiar age. When the boy started school, Allen began to learn from him. When the family discovered he was learning to read, they separated him from their son and placed him with another family, the Talbots. Mrs. Talbot, a Quaker, continued to teach him to read and write; she also took him to a Sunday school for slave children. When his former mistress discovered this, she took Allen back. In 1854 she made arrangements with her husband's partner John Smith to send the boy to his brother Pat's plantation down the Mississippi River in Henderson, Kentucky, to put an end to his learning. On the steamboat, the boy was placed in the care of a slave steward rather than being chained with other slaves below deck. They were being transported for sale to downriver markets. 1855 at age 13, Allen planned to escape to Canada. He spent two weeks hiding at a neighboring farm before returning to his new owners for punishment. Later he ran away again. Eventually he was sold, and unlike others, his new master was pleased to learn that the boy could read; he assigned him to race his best horse.
While working nearby on a farm, Allen met soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union unit encamped near Louisville. When he told them of wanting freedom, they invited him to join the hospital corps. In disguise, he marched with the unit past his old master through Louisville and off to war.
During Reconstruction, Allen taught at schools for freedmen and their children operated by the Freedmen's Bureau. Inspired by his own teaching, he began attending courses at the Nashville Institute, later known as the Roger Williams University, but did not graduate. The school later gave him an honorary Master of Arts.
Allen became involved with the Baptist Church in Louisville and attended the Fifth Street Baptist Church led by Henry Adams. He was ordained in 1871 by the Baptists as a preacher. In the 1870s, Allensworth went to Tennessee to study theology. During this time he also served as a preacher in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville.
In 1877 he married Josephine Leavell; they had met while studying at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. They had two daughters together, Eva and Nella
In 1886, when he was 44, Allen gained support by both Southern and Northern politicians for appointment as a chaplain in the US Army; his appointment was confirmed by the Senate, as necessary at the time, and approved by the President. He was one of the few black chaplains in the US Army and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
By the time of his retirement in 1906, Allensworth had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, the first African American to gain that rank.
After the army, Allen and his family settled in Los Angeles, CA.. His dream was to build a community where black people might live free of the racial discrimination. In 1908, he founded Allensworth in Tulare county, about thirty miles north of Bakersfield. The black settlers of Allensworth built homes, laid out streets, and put up public buildings. They established a church, and organized an orchestra, a glee club, and a brass band. All the streets in the town were named after notable African Americans and/or white abolitionists, such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The year 1914 brought a number of setbacks to the town. First, much of the town's economic base was lost when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop from Allensworth to Alpaugh, also the dry and dusty soil made farming difficult. The drinking water became contaminated by arsenic as the water level fell.
In September of 1914, during a trip to Monrovia, California, Colonel Allensworth was crossing the street when he was struck and killed by a motorcycle.
Allensworth is the only California community to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans.