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Allensworth: California's All Black Community

Allensworth: California's All Black Community

By B. Gordon Wheeler for Wild West Magazine

While the colony existed as symbol of hope for less than 20 years, it assumes greater significance in the context of the political and racial pre-World War I America. From that era of segregation, characterized by vitriolic racism and the extralegal atrocities of "Judge Lynch," arose the ambiguous leadership of Booker T. Washington. His policies of accommodation to white racism, mixed with his exhortations for black self-help and virtuous living, were clarion calls for much of the African-American community. Certainly many early Allensworth residents agreed with Washington when he said: "One farm bought, one house built, one home sweetly and intelligently kept, one man who is the largest taxpayer or who has the largest banking account, one school or church maintained, one factory running successfully, one garden profitably cultivated, one patient cured by a Negro doctor, one sermon well preached, one life clearly lived, will tell more in our favor than all the abstract eloquence that can be summoned to plead our cause."

The community of Allensworth was an indirect result of Washington's philosophy of racial self-help. There, black men and women who controlled their land and destiny could prove to white America than, left to their own devices, they could create businesses, churches and communities that would contribute to black America's rise to greatness.

Allensworth has also had a role in the historical continuum of all-black towns. While most African-Americans have always believed that hard work, perseverance and education would eventually lead to the triumph of justice and racial equality, if not for them, then for future generations, other African Americans have been less optimistic. The later African Americans doubted that a nation that had spawned the Ku Klux Klan and limited its black citizens' opportunities by legislative and de facto discrimination would ever embrace the black man and woman as an equal. To some, the only hope lay in distancing themselves from whites. For example, individuals such as Paul Cuffee (18th century) and Bishop Henry Turner (19th century) urged African Americans to return to Africa, where one could develop one's talents to the fullest as well as reaffirm ties to the African heritage. But such African repatriation plans met with limited success, for the simple yet powerful reason that most black people viewed American, not Africa, as their homeland and so greeted attempts to create African-American towns within the continental United States with much more enthusiasm.

Black settlements have appeared on the American landscape since the colonial era, an example of which is the community of Parting Ways in Massachusetts. Like Allensworth, Parting Ways and countless other all-black communities were a response to overt racism: they were heralded by the black press as "a positive step forward;" were greeted with distrust and at times hostility by the neighboring towns; were begun with enthusiasm and pride, but with little capital; and almost all have been forgotten.

Allensworth, Calif., differed from other all-black towns in its sense of mission and use of those modern promotional tools previously described. Payne and Allensworth had hoped that by giving their town the widest possible national circulation, their thriving "city on a hill" would eventually change the attitudes of white America. Thus the community tempered individual gain with the need t uplift the African-American race. And that is surely worth commemorating.

One might just as well wonder why Americans commemorate the failed defense of the Alamo, for the fact that Allensworth ultimately failed is not the most important fact about the venture. What mattered then is that the attempt was made. And what matters now is that all Americans finally discover the depths of character and vision of those who, through their attempt to build a colony, tried to provide an opportunity for men and women to transcend race-based limits, and thus control their own destinies.

The lure of jobs in Oakland and in other war industry sites further decimated the town's population, and in 1966, arsenic was found its water supply. This seemed to sound the death knell for Allensworth. Yet the colonel's dream would not die. Beginning in 1969, various community organizations, led by Ed Pope and Eugene and Ruth Lasartemay, expressed interest and support in creating a state historic site at Allensworth. By 1973, the state had acquired the land, and the advisory committee, under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Goode, began its work. In May 1976, the state Department of Parks and Recreation approved the plans to develop the park, and on October 6, 1976, the park was indeed dedicated. So the colonel's dream, if not his colony, endures.

When the Department of Parks and Recreation was collecting oral histories during the 1970s as a prelude to establishing the park, however, several of the former residents who were interviewed wondered why anyone was interested in Allensworth. After all, hadn't the colony failed? Why commemorate an unsuccessful venture?

More of this Feature
Part 1: Allen Allensworth
Part 2: Payne & Allensworth
Part 3: Creation of a Community
Part 4: Community's Initial Success
Part 5: Colony in Decline
Part 6: Preservation

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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