Born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky, Allen was the youngest of thirteen children of Phyllis Starbird and Levi Allensworth. His mother was held by A.P. and Bett Starbird. The mistress assigned Allen as a young slave to her son Thomas. When the Starbird boy started school, Allen began to learn from him, although it was illegal.
Over the years, their family was scattered: his sister Lila escaped with her intended husband to Canada by the Underground Railroad; the older boys William, George, Frank, Levi and Major were sold downriver to plantations in the Deep South.
In 1854, Mrs. Starbird made arrangements with her husband's partner, John Smith, to send the boy to a Smith's brother's plantation down the Mississippi River in Henderson, to put an end to his learning. On the steamboat, Allen was placed in the care of a slave steward rather than being chained with other slaves below deck, who were being taken for sale to downriver markets.
Hebe Smith, Allen's new mistress, assigned him to be a houseboy; she prohibited him from continuing his studies, and whipped him for trying to do so. Also working in the household was a white orphan boy Eddie; the two boys became friends and helped each other. Suffering on the farm from a cruel overseer, in 1855 at age 13, Allen planned to escape to Canada. He spent two weeks hiding at a neighboring farm before returning to the Smiths for punishment. Later he ran away again.
The Smiths and Starbirds eventually sold him on the auction block in Henderson. Allen was sold again in Memphis, Tennessee, and shipped to New Orleans. There he was purchased by Fred Scruggs, who taught him to work as an exercise boy and jockey in Jefferson, Louisiana. His new master was pleased to learn that the boy could read and assigned him to race his best horse.
|Louisville during the Civil War|
While working on a farm where Scruggs had placed him, Allensworth 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.
Allensworth became involved with the Baptist Church in Louisville; he was ordained in 1871 by the Baptists as a preacher. In the 1870s, he went on to study theology in Tennessee. During this time he also served as preacher in Franklin, south of Nashville.
In 1875, he started working as a teacher in Georgetown, Kentucky. He also served as the financial agent of the General Association of the Colored Baptists in Kentucky. They had joined together to support the founding of a religious school for black teachers and preachers.
He returned to Louisville when called to be pastor of the Harney Street Baptist Church, which he reorganized. It was renamed it Centennial Baptist Church; within a few years, Allensworth had increased the congregation nearly fivefold, and built a new church.
|Josephine Leavell Allensworth|
The year of his marriage, Allensworth invited his mother to live with him and Josephine. They had several months together before she died in 1878.
By the time of his retirement in 1906, Allensworth was the first African American to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
|Tulare County Library in Allensworth|
|Interior of Allensworth Home|