Monday, August 26, 2013

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park

Home of Colonel Allensworth
General Store
First Baptist Church
Although I seek magical moments whenever I travel, sometimes the road takes me down a more reflective path.  As we drove down the vast San Joaquin Valley in California, I noticed a spot on the map:  Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.  "That might be a nice place to stop for a picnic," I suggested, not really having a clue what the park was all about.

We rolled into a ghost town.  The gates were closed, but the buildings, scattered throughout a field of scorched grass, were freshly painted, quaint, and oh, so inviting.  The sign at the gate informed us the park was closed Monday through Wednesday (and it was Tuesday) but that we could park outside and walk.  Paying the fee was based on the honor system.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but after a picnic of iced tea and turkey sandwiches, we set out to find out what this enticing little park was all about.   We ended up spending the entire afternoon here, stunned at the historic significance of the place and saddened by how cruel and unjust history can be.

Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in 1842.  He fled Kentucky twenty years later in order to join the Union Army and after the Civil War, life changed for the better.  He married an educated woman who was a school teacher and gifted musician, and he earned a doctorate in theology.  He re-entered the army as a chaplain and retired in 1906 as a lieutenant colonel--the first African American to do so.

After retirement, he toured the country promoting the philosophy of Booker T. Washington--that men like him could put the humiliation of slavery behind and grow to realize their full potential as human beings.  He met other like-minded men and women and together, they decided to purchase 800 acres along the Santa Fe rail line and build a town in the San Joaquin Valley.  Allensworth was to be California's first town to be founded and governed solely by African Americans.  The dream of living a dignified, hard working life, free of discrimination had been realized.  The year was 1909. 

People from all over the country heard about this remarkable town and found their way to California.  They built houses, stores, schools and churches.  Education was a high priority.  Allensworth became California's first African American school district.  A library was started and Tulare County supplied it with 50 books a month.  

But racial discrimination found them, even in this isolated spot, in the middle of nowhere.  Other communities were popping up.  In 1914, the Santa Fe Railroad moved its depot from Allensworth to Alpaugh, a town that had been promoted heavily in the Los Angeles newspapers.  "All Aboard for Alpaugh", the headlines read where "Colonists will find a profitable market at home for all their produce."  White colonists, not black ones.

Allensworth's decline began.  Although the town survived into the 1960's, a failing water supply and continual droughts forced the few remaining inhabitants to seek work elsewhere.  By 1973, it was no longer even on the map.

Today, nearly 70,000 visitors come to pay their respects to these incredible pioneers.  The buildings have been restored and are filled with antiques.  There are signs in front of each building, documenting their stories.  They are inspiring, yes, but also serve as a reminder that American History is tarnished.  Racial discrimination is an ugly fact.  All of us must work together to stop it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment