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A Lost Horizon : Allensworth was he dream of an ex-slave who envisioned a place where blacks could live freely. Racism and hard times eventually killed his utopia. But its memory has survived.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It began here in 1908 as a utopia for blacks, a place where former slaves could escape the indignities of discrimination.

In its heyday, it was a thriving farm community with a lucrative railroad stopover. There was a constable and a justice of the peace. There were debates, a traveling glee club and theater performances.

This was Allensworth, the only town in California established by blacks.

But the dream began to fade.

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After half a century of struggling to survive, this black mecca died in the 1960s, done in by the harsh flats of the San Joaquin Valley and by the harsh realities of racism.

While there is no way to bring back the glory of this hard-working community, descendants are battling to bring back its memory. To remind people that there were blacks who made significant contributions to the state.

“It’s not in the history books, and it’s been kept quiet for a long time,” says Sally Clipps, an archivist for the state Department of Parks and Recreation in Sacramento. “But once you get there, you can see the history. You can feel it.”

Many of the people old enough to remember the legacy of these pioneers have carried their bittersweet recollections to the grave. But slowly, the memories are being revived.

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Through the efforts of historians and former residents, Allensworth became a state park in 1976. And today, residents and descendants are still trying to piece together its lost history.

Recently, 3,000 people gathered at the partially restored site for a reunion. They held hands and sang spirituals in the reconstructed Baptist church, their voices breathing new life into the abandoned walls.

They traveled from Oakland, Fresno and Los Angeles. Some came from Chicago, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. One young boy marveled to his mother that he had never seen so many black people in his life.

“It’s a real special spirit--a feeling of pride--to know that these people were able to do what they did,” says Dorothy Benjamin, 44, a Sacramento resident whose grandfather, Eddie Cotton, was among the town’s first settlers. “This is our culture, our history.”

Because it was not chronicled in mainstream history books, much of what is known about this once-vibrant community of schoolteachers, farmers and shopkeepers has been passed down orally through the generations. Historians have uncovered the rest from court documents, voting records and other Tulare County documents.

The town was named after its founder, Allen Allensworth, a Kentucky slave who was sold and separated from his family at age 12 because he violated a state law that prohibited blacks from learning to read or write.

After nine years in captivity, Allensworth smeared mud on his face to hide his cream-colored skin and slipped behind Union lines. He eventually rose through the army ranks to become a lieutenant colonel, the highest-ranking black U.S. military officer at the time.

When he retired in 1906, “the Colonel” began devising plans for a town that would attract the best and the brightest of his race. In the words of one resident, it would “prove to the white man, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Negro is capable of self-respect and self-control.”

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The concept was not a new one. Rather than test the limits of the racial restrictions of the day, blacks around the country were forming their own self-contained communities. There were Boley, Okla.; Nicodemus, Kan.; Mt. Bayou, Miss.

“The movement came out of the Post-Reconstruction period when many black leaders were saying, ‘We’re tired of fighting the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s withdraw, form our own communities and show people we can run them,’ ” says Lawrence Crouschette, director of the Northern California Center for Afro-American History in Oakland. “Allensworth was the California version.”

While scouting locations for their would-be model community, settlers soon ran into problems finding choice but inexpensive land. That was when the Pacific Farming Co., headed by a group of wealthy land speculators, offered to sell thousands of acres around Solito, a train depot halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The white-owned company readily agreed to do business with blacks partly because the land was anything but fertile. But for the settlers, the rugged, untilled tracts were their only chance for salvation. At the time, two to three acres could be purchased for less than $1,000. Allensworth bought 2,700 acres.

Solito, renamed Allensworth, grew rapidly. Soon, farmers, teachers and officers who had fought in the Civil War were flocking from Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas, eager to take part in the great “Negro experiment.”

After a time, cotton, grain, sugar beets and livestock flourished with the help of irrigation. Within three years, the community had swelled to 300 families, and their success was touted in black periodicals around the country.

In newspaper advertisements, Allensworth urged others to join him “in a beautiful, balmy California climate surrounded by the very best environment.”

As the population grew, the townspeople built a two-room schoolhouse, library, church, post office, bakery, drugstore and smithy.

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Eventually, the community became a transfer station on the Santa Fe Railroad. Traveling cattle merchants arrived in Allensworth daily, providing a booming business for the local restaurant, hotel and livery.

Allensworth was designated a voting precinct. Its justice of the peace and constable were the first black men in California to hold elected office. The town was run by an association of representatives chosen by the residents.

The community workings were planned down to the finest detail. There was even a fire auxiliary in which women were on call to “attend the fire with brooms which are to be kept wet so as to put out sparks . . .” according to newspaper accounts.

“These were people with vision and intellect and the ability to carry out their dream,” says Alice Royal, a Visalia resident who was born in her grandfather’s house in Allensworth in 1926. “They built the colony, educated the colony and ran the colony. Education was so important to them that they even taxed themselves extra to pay for a second schoolteacher because the state only paid for one.”

Cultural life also flourished.

There were the Debating Society, the Theatre Club and the Sewing Circle. During World War I, the Children’s Glee Club often sang at war bond rallies. They also traveled to neighboring white towns to give concerts that were warmly received.

William Calvert, 73, a Washington, D.C., resident who lived in Allensworth during the 1930s, says he can still see his mother, Sadie, sitting on the front steps of the drugstore, “reading her poetry to anyone who would listen.”

“She had a book of poems published that she knew by heart,” he says of his mother, who died in April at 102. “Her sister used to teach here because it was one of the only places in California that hired black teachers.”

As Allensworth exceeded even its founder’s vision, the town’s white neighbors were angered by its prosperity. While there is no record of open hostility, people in surrounding communities began to distance themselves and even cut off communication.

“They thought that this would just be a town of migrant workers,” says Ed Pope, 61, who moved to Allensworth in the late 1930s to pick cotton. “But when they saw how successful it was, they tried to destroy it.”

Although details are sketchy, sometime between 1911 and 1914 the Pacific Farming Co. stepped in and took control of Allensworth’s water rights, then issued an edict that no more land could be sold to blacks. (At the time, this was legal; there were laws that prohibited blacks from owning property.) Town residents sued and eventually regained control of their water supply, state park officials say.

In 1914, the Santa Fe Railroad built a stop in the neighboring white town of Alpaugh, and lucrative business was diverted from Allensworth, state officials say. Many residents suspected the decision was racially motivated: Railroad officials had initially opposed the renaming of Solito as Allensworth and routinely refused to hire blacks for anything but menial jobs.

Santa Fe Railroad officials say they have no documents from that time confirming or denying racism as a motive. But according to their records, service to the area continued until 1939, although it is unclear whether the train stopped in Allensworth or Alpaugh.

They point out that some of the early ticket agents in Allensworth were black, which, they say, was considered progressive at the time.

The town’s problems continued to worsen when the agricultural demands of a growing population lowered the natural water table, drying up drinking wells. When neighboring white towns formed a cooperative to build a new water system, they refused to allow Allensworth to participate, state park officials say.

The devastating blow came in 1914: Col. Allensworth--on a visit to Los Angeles to promote the community--accidentally stepped off the curb in front of a streetcar and was killed by a passing motorcyclist. Despite his death, many residents remained in Allensworth, tending their crops and continuing to eke out an existence.

By the time George Finley, a young schoolteacher fresh out of the Tuskegee Institute, arrived in 1954, the town was just a shadow of its former self. But to Finley, who had come from the Jim Crow South, it was paradise.

“It was beautiful. These buildings were so well kept up,” says Finley, 64, who lives in Fresno and chairs Friends of Allensworth, one of the organizations working to preserve the site. “It was like one big happy family.”

But tragedy struck the town again in 1966, when state water officials discovered abnormally high levels of arsenic in three new wells that were being drilled. They blamed the problem on natural causes and ordered residents not to drink from the polluted wells. Health officials say arsenic had probably been in the drinking water since the town was founded.

Eventually, residents secured a $48,000 federal loan to build a new water system. In addition, the community--never straying from Allensworth’s philosophy of self-help--donated an estimated $15,000 of their own labor to lay the new water lines.

Before the system was built, a plumber in neighboring Tulare donated a 2,000-gallon tank to the town residents and placed it in front of the school.

“We used to have to haul water from the tank at the schoolhouse,” Pope says. “We would put the water in barrels, store it alongside the house and cover it with gunnysacks.”

Many former residents say their health has not suffered, and there have been no subsequent medical studies to determine if the arsenic had adverse effects.

But Finley recalls that residents often suffered a mysterious illness known as “valley fever.” He says the symptoms included weakness, coughing and nausea--all of which are associated with chronic arsenic poisoning.

Once the arsenic was discovered, many residents began moving away. Even as the new pipeline was being built, the town was on the verge of extinction. The few surviving buildings were a shambles and the population was just over 100.

In the late ‘60s, Pope, a draftsman for the state parks department, began a campaign to preserve the town as a historic monument to the black experience in California.

During his research, Pope says, he learned of dozens of state-owned facilities that tell the stories of various ethnic groups; however, he found none honoring blacks.

“This was one of the most unique places in California and no one knew anything about it,” Pope says. Initially, state officials were reluctant to spend $2.5 million on a park tucked away in the nether regions of southwest Tulare County. There was nothing there. Who would visit?

But Pope and a group of black historians from across California were persistent. They lobbied local and state legislators. They collected photographs, written accounts and other materials documenting Allensworth history.

“This was an interesting tale of Afro-Americans trying to make something of themselves in what was a God-forsaken area,” says Rick Moss, history curator for the Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles. “There are so few of these areas, and we’ve lost so much of our history. We have to make a stand somewhere.”

Finally, in 1976, the state approved plans to develop Allensworth Historic Park, a 240-acre site at the former town center. So far, half a dozen buildings have been restored, including Allensworth’s home. There are plans to renovate 16 more.

Today, what remains of the town of Allensworth are a few dozen homes scattered along the outskirts of the state park. Although blacks still live there--some still making their living from the soil, more than half its 100 residents are Mexican farm laborers.

At last month’s reunion, many people brought their children, eager for them to share in a celebration of their ancestors’ heroic achievements--and of what could be again.

There was some talk of bringing the town back as a retirement community. There was some talk of turning it into a Williamsburg, Va., with a likeness of Col. Allensworth narrating the town’s history.

But mostly talk centered on the town’s glorious past.

Josephine Smith, the granddaughter of Allen Allensworth, led park visitors on a tour of his restored home, a Sears, Roebuck ready-made that he had transported into town on a railway car.

“Welcome to my grandfather’s house,” Smith says, sitting down to play the piano. “I used to come up here as a little girl and I would play piano--Minuet in G.”

Outside, a slight breeze carried the musty odor of the cattle from neighboring ranches, much as it must have done years ago.

Ed Pope nodded approvingly, wiping perspiration from his forehead.

“This is a town that refuses to die,” Pope says, his voice brimming with optimism. “We’re just beginning to build it back.”


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