Sunday, April 7, 2013

Allen Allensworth, born April 7, 1842

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.

After his father died when Allen was young, his mother was sold as a cook to a neighbor, the attorney Nat Wolfe. When the Starbirds discovered that Allen was learning to read, they separated him from their son and placed him with another family, the Talbots. Mrs. Talbot, a Quaker, was kind to Allen and continued to teach him to read and write; she also took him to a Sunday school for slave children. When Bett Starbird discovered this, she took Allen back. 

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. 

Mary Jane was his only sibling who grew up in Kentucky and married there.

 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.

Allen was 19 years old when the Civil War began.

Louisville during the Civil War
 In early 1861, the Civil War began, but horse racing continued and Scruggs took Allensworth and his horses upriver for the fall meet in Louisville. Allensworth hoped to see his mother Phyllis again, as he had learned that her last master, a Reverend Bayliss, had freed her after she cared for his dying wife. He found that she had recently gone to New Orleans with a Union man to look for her sons. (She found Major in prison.) 

Waiting for her return, Allensworth was reunited with his sister Mary Jane, who had married and had a son. She had purchased her freedom in 1849. When Phyllis Starbird returned to Louisville, she and Allen were reunited.

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. 

After serving as a civilian nursing aide for some time, he was invited to accompany Dr. A. J. Gordon, one of the surgeons, to his home in Georgetown, Ohio. There Allensworth dined with Gordon's family, was given a room of his own, and felt he first walked as a free man. 

With the war continuing, in 1863 Allensworth enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he earned his first pay as a free man. He was soon promoted to Captain's steward and clerk, and served on the gunboats Queen City and Tawah for two years.

After the war ended,  Allensworth returned to Kentucky to work and study. 

In 1868, he joined his brother, William, in St. Louis, Missouri, where they operated two restaurants. Within a short time, they received a favorable offer and sold them out; Allensworth returned to Louisville. He worked while putting himself through the Ely Normal School, one of several new schools in the South established by the American Missionary Association.  During Reconstruction, Allensworth taught at schools for freedmen and their children operated by the Freedman's Bureau. 

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
In 1877 he married Josephine Leavell (1855–1938), also a native of Kentucky; they had met while studying at Roger Williams University in Nashville. She was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. They had two daughters together, Eva and Nella.

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.
Allensworth was called to the State Street Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  He also gave public lectures. That fall, he went to Boston to give a series of lectures, after studying public speaking in Philadelphia.  On his return, he met people from the American Baptist Publication Society in Philadelphia, who appointed him as Sunday School Missionary for the state of Kentucky. 

With his leadership positions and public speaking, Allensworth became increasingly interested in politics. In 1880 and 1884, he was selected as Kentucky's only black delegate to the Republican National conventions. 

Allen Allensworth
In 1886, when he was 44, Allensworth 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

His family accompanied him on assignments in the West, ranging from New Mexico Territory to Montana. His wife played organ in the fort chapels.
By the time of his retirement in 1906, Allensworth was the first African American to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

After the Army, Allensworth and his family settled in Los Angeles.  He had the idea of establishing a self-sufficient, all-black California community where African Americans could live free of the racial discrimination that pervaded America.

In 1908, he founded Allensworth in Tulare County, California, about thirty miles north of Bakersfield, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Within a year, the Tulare County Times reported that 35 families were residing in Allensworth. By 1912, Allensworth's official population of 100 celebrated the birth of Alwortha Hall, the first baby born in the town. The town had two general stores, a post office.  
Tulare County Library in Allensworth
The black settlers of Allensworth built homes, laid out streets, and put up public buildings, including a library. They established a church, and organized an orchestra, a glee club, and a brass band.

Allensworth Home

Interior of Allensworth Home
The Allensworth colony became a member of the county school district and the regional library system; they also established a voting precinct. Residents elected the first African-American Justice of the Peace in the state of California. 

Unfortunately, the dry and dusty soil made farming difficult. The drinking water became contaminated by toxins as the water level fell. In 1914, much of the town’s economic base was lost when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop from Allensworth to Alpaugh.  The Santa Fe's decision was the culmination of a series of conflicts between Allensworth and the railroad, along with racial prejudice. Initially, the rail line refused to change the name of the depot from Solito to Allensworth.  In an article in the Tulare County Times in July 1909, officials argued that the new name was too long to fit on signs or in the book of schedules. The corporation also refused to hire African Americans as the manager or as ticket agents of the station located in the town, and restricted black people to menial labor.

On September 13, 1914, during a trip to Monrovia, California, Allensworth was crossing the street when he was struck and killed by a motorcycle. He died the following morning, September 14.  He was 72 years old.

Riding the motorcycle were two white youths, E. S. White and W. F. Ray, who claimed that Allensworth was responsible for the accident. But after the colonel's family filed a legal complaint, the two were arrested in late September.

After funeral services at the Second Baptist church of Los Angeles, with a military honor guard of both races, Colonel Allensworth was interred at the Rosedale Cemetery on September 18, 1914. 
Allensworth Grave
 Without Allensworth's guidance and leadership, the community began to decline. By 1920, Josephine Allensworth returned to Los Angeles to live with her daughter, Nella.

But the town did remain home to a handful of families and individuals throughout the 20th century.

The town of Allensworth is now preserved as Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

The most important building, historically and in the memory of the Allensworth pioneers, is the schoolhouse. It was in use until 1972, and it is furnished as it would have been on a school day in 1915.
Allensworth School

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