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Don’t let cows trample on L.A.'s history

SUSAN ANDERSON is a visiting professor at Pitzer College in Claremont and managing director of L.A. As Subject at USC, an association of libraries and archives. She will chair an April 4 conference at Pitzer, "Buried Treasure: Discovering Los Angeles Through Its African American Past."

CZECH NOVELIST Milan Kundera wrote that “the struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” A recent vote in a corner of the San Joaquin Valley threatens to marginalize the memory of a part of America’s cultural inheritance: the only state park in California honoring contributions of African Americans. Last month, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead to build two huge dairies within a mile of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. The stench and flies created by nearly 100 daily tons of waste from 16,000 cows will dampen park attendance and jeopardize the state’s $8-million investment in the site’s restoration.

Tulare County is already home to more cows per capita than any other area in the country. But Allensworth Park is unique because it preserves a significant past, one in which Los Angeles played a leading role.

In 1905, the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Col. Allen Allensworth, former chaplain of the 24th Infantry and “one of the most distinguished colored men of this country,” had come to Los Angeles to “await retirement and make his home here.” In fact, Allensworth didn’t retire. Instead, he became a prominent civic leader and sat on the committee that, in 1907, met with the state parks commissioner concerning the Owens River water bond, which led to the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. In 1908, he was a speaker at the Republican state convention.

The colonel’s civic stature is not the only reason he’s an important figure in history. He, along with educator William Payne and entrepreneur Oscar Overr of Pasadena, had a dream. They incorporated the California Colony and Home Promotion Assn., with offices in downtown Los Angeles, to establish an independent, all-black town 40 miles north of Bakersfield. They named it Allensworth.

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It was the post-Reconstruction “nadir in American life and thought concerning the Negro,” according to historian Rayford Logan. Ivy League academics spouted scientific racism, Progressive Party leaders considered eugenics a worthwhile reform, the Supreme Court upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, Currier & Ives sold “Darktown” illustrations, minstrels performed “coon songs” on Broadway stages, African Americans were forcibly removed from polling places, lynchings were widespread and the Ku Klux Klan was part of the power structure.

One response was the founding of all-black towns in such places as Nicodemus, Kan.; Boley, Okla.; Mound Bayou, Miss.; and Dearfield, Colo. In California, all-black settlements were recorded as early as 1890, including several in the San Joaquin Valley. Few were as well planned or long lived as Allensworth.

At the opening ceremonies for the new town in 1909, Allensworth stated that “the chief object of this community will be to aid in settling some of the vast problems now before the country.... A large number of our fellow countrymen have been taught for generations that the Negro is incapable of the highest development of citizenship.... If we expect to be given due credit for our efforts and achievements

By 1914, the settlement boasted 400 residents on 900 acres valued at $112,500. The town had a debating society, symphony orchestra, Women’s Improvement League, the first branch of the Tulare County Public Library and the first all-black school district in the state. Voters elected the first black constable and justice of the peace in post-Mexican California.

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After the colonel was killed by a reckless motorcyclist in 1914, his wife, Josephine Leavell Allensworth, helped lead the town. Eventually she moved back to Los Angeles, where she was active in campaigns to integrate municipal facilities and public swimming pools. She died in 1938. Her son-in-law, Louis Blodgett, was considered the most successful African American contractor in Los Angeles and helped found Liberty Building and Loan Assn., among other businesses.

Allensworth thrived until the early 1930s. The diversion of the railroad to a nearby town, battles over water rights and the defeat of legislation to build a vocational school to be known as “the Tuskegee Institute of the West” gradually led to its decline.

When a citizens campaign to preserve the town was launched in the 1970s, only a few families were living at the site. In 1972, the state bought 300 acres around Allensworth and took over the town, painstakingly restoring its residences, church, stores, barbershop, hotel, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and other buildings.

In deciding to approve the dairies, the Tulare County supervisors have encroached on Los Angeles history, and they’ve shown they can’t be trusted to protect and preserve it.

The city of Los Angeles should officially join the state Parks and Recreation Department and the black legislative caucus to tell Tulare supervisors two things: One, Allensworth’s narrative of blacks reclaiming democracy during one of their bleakest times belongs to Los Angeles too. And two, that the dairy capital of the nation can have all the cows it wants -- just keep them away from the cultural treasure of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.


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