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'Promised Land': A Historically Black California Town Honors Its Proud, Painful Past — and Fights for Its Future

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a woman sits in front of a blue building in a desert
Maxine Butler of Oakland, who recently learned she had relatives who lived in Allensworth, sits in front of a restored building in Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, established in 1976. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

The town of Allensworth, located 30 minutes off Interstate 5 near Bakersfield, was a thriving Black community in the early 20th century. Its founders — a group of five Black settlers including Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth — envisioned a Black utopia. The town had its own school, church and bank.

To escape racist violence and discrimination after the Civil War, Black people built settlements known as freedmen’s towns in a number of states across the U.S. But Allensworth, established in 1908, was the first of its kind in California: a town governed entirely by Black people.

Lt. Col. Allensworth, who was enslaved in Kentucky before fleeing and becoming a Union soldier in the Civil War, was also a minister, educator and businessman. With his town, he hoped to create the “Tuskegee of the West,” according to Terrance Dean, a Black studies professor at Denison University in Ohio who has provided expert testimony to California’s Reparations Task Force.

In a letter to Booker T. Washington — a prominent Black leader in the early 20th century and the principal of Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, a historically Black school in Alabama — Allensworth said the town would be “where African Americans would settle upon the bare desert and cause it to blossom as a rose.”

A portrait of Lt. Col. Allensworth near an abandoned home in Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. (Ted Streshinsky/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Allensworth did blossom into a thriving town. But it had to rely on the state government and white-owned companies that controlled water distribution and the railroad, two lifelines that were soon snatched to squeeze Allensworth into submission — by 1920, the town was in severe decline.

Determined to be recognized

Before the more widely known 1921 incident in which a white mob destroyed the homes and businesses of prosperous Black residents in Tulsa, Okla., killing almost 40 people, there was Allensworth, a settlement decimated by racism.

Once a destination where Black people from around the country moved for safety and an opportunity to flourish, Allensworth is now a dusty Central Valley outpost with a population of roughly 500. The town is a remarkable part of the state’s history, yet many people have never heard of it.

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Allensworth and Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, founded in 1974 to honor the town’s history and Black Californians, have come up in several meetings of California’s Reparations Task Force, the group researching reparations for the harm caused by the legacy of slavery in the state. The task force will make a formal recommendation to the state Legislature next summer.

There have been previous efforts to preserve and share Allensworth’s history and to revitalize the town’s economic base, but what might reparations look like? State Sen. Steven Bradford, a member of the Reparations Task Force, has referred to Allensworth as a ghost town. But a visit almost three months ago revealed a community determined to be recognized.

Amtrak offered a special 50% discount for train passengers stopping at Allensworth for a celebration of Juneteenth, the national holiday that commemorates emancipation. Maxine Butler was among those who took advantage of the chance to visit the town, catching the train at 6 a.m. on June 11 from the Emeryville Amtrak station. The platform bustled with excitement and anticipation as people boarded the Bakersfield-bound train.

Butler, who is from North Oakland, had received a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier that week. She said visiting Allensworth was on her bucket list. She’d also recently learned that her sister-in-law’s family lived there for six years, until 1940.

an older woman sits on a train wearing a hat and sunglasses and looking out the window
Maxine Butler of Oakland rides an Amtrak train to visit Allensworth in June 2022. (Lakshmi Sarah/KQED)

“I can only imagine the atmosphere at that time,” she said, referring to Allensworth’s beginnings. “Escaping the lynchings. Escaping the aftereffects of slavery. And they probably heard about this — this Jerusalem, this promised land called Allensworth.”

Butler has bright eyes and is a classical music singer who used to sing with the Oakland Symphony Chorus. She broke into song more than once as the train made its way through Central Valley towns during the 4.5-hour ride.

The importance of 'home'

Homeownership is often the largest contributor to personal wealth in the United States. According to a Public Policy Institute of California data analysis, the Black homeownership rate in California is at 36.8%, about 26.4 points below the rate for white households.

“Home helps us to place a marker on our beginnings,” said Dean, of Denison University, in his testimony to the Reparations Task Force. “This is where this American odyssey begins for the hundreds of Black families of Allensworth, Calif., who unfortunately do not and cannot claim inheritance to a home that their ancestors created for them.”

In addition to the town’s founding, Dean spoke about William Payne, Allensworth’s first teacher and principal, who was denied a teaching license by the state.

Lt. Col. Allensworth had secured more than 9,000 acres “of the richest land in central California,” he wrote to Booker T. Washington. The settlement was on the main line of the Santa Fe Railway. According to Dean, Allensworth was the only transfer point between Los Angeles and Fresno at that time.

“In essence, it was a shining example of Black self-sufficiency and prosperity,” Dean said.

A railroad diverted

At Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, visitors can peek into the windows of each structure — the schoolhouse, the library and homes. The nearly 20 buildings are meant to look like they would have looked in 1908, complete with outhouses, furniture, books and even fake food in the kitchen of Lt. Col. Allensworth’s home. There's a bizarre ghost-like quality to the buildings on days when there isn’t a celebration.

In a self-guided tour of sorts, visitors can call a number to hear a brief recording describing aspects of each building. The recording also describes the railroad station that connected Allensworth to the outside world.

“Trains brought friends and relatives, mail supplies and building materials,” a recorded voice says. “Most important, freight shipments supported the town's economy.”

In 1914, a new stop was created in a neighboring white town and the number of shipments from Allensworth severely declined. That’s one of the factors that led to the town’s demise, according to Jerelyn Oliveira, who leads tours of the park.

“They added tracks over to the little community of Alpaugh, which is west of here by about seven miles,” she said. “All that agricultural product was being transported from Alpaugh instead of Allensworth. So the money started slowing down, dwindling, and then the trains stopped stopping here in 1929.”

a bumper sticker that reads 'Visit California's Black Historic Town Allensworth'
A bumper sticker from Allensworth, circa 1970s. (Courtesy of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland Photograph Collection)

Water was another issue. The Pacific Water Company built only four wells for Allensworth, compared to the 10 wells built for Alpaugh, according to a report released by the Reparations Task Force in June. Allensworth’s wells started drying up, and the water became contaminated. The settlers were “victims of a racist scam and were sold land that would never have enough water,” the report noted.

Denise Kadara’s mother, Nettie Morrison, moved Denise and her siblings to Allensworth in the '70s. For almost four decades, Morrison helped keep the memory of the town alive through park events, like the Juneteenth celebration. Though she passed away in 2018, her children — including Kadara and her twin brother, Dennis Hutson — are continuing the legacy.

“All we want to do here is bring the community back, and make it a thriving community once again,” Kadara said.

Pride and sadness

When Butler disembarked the train in the blazing heat, she walked across the tracks to wait for the small bus to take her to the schoolhouse. There, Butler told the docents that she heard a story about how Gloria Harris, her sister-in-law’s mother, had carved her name into a desk. She didn’t find Harris’ name on a desk, but one of the school’s record books confirmed Harris did attend the one-room school.

a black and white photo of a schoolhouse
Exterior of Allensworth Elementary School building, Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, circa 1970s. (Courtesy of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland Photograph Collection)

Several other visitors walked across the school’s creaky floorboards and examined the desks, including Latrice Hutchings, who took the train from Stockton.

“It feels amazing. There's a sense of nostalgia,” said Hutchings, who had previously visited the park a few weeks prior to the Juneteenth celebration. All of the buildings had been closed then, and she could only look through the windows.

“It's awesome to be inside,” Hutchings continued. “You feel a little bit emotional and you feel a little proud, because you can see that they had a good life here.”

Gail Autry, who boarded the train in the Bay Area, said she had mixed emotions being at the park.

“I kind of want to cry,” she said. “Any time I've ever gone to a different plantation, it's just the feeling of pride, of sadness, of how they made it.”

A road map to repair

Sen. Bradford, of the Reparations Task Force, is focused on bringing attention to the accomplishments of Black people and properties they owned at the turn of the century, such as Val Verde and Bruce’s Beach.

Val Verde was a Santa Clarita Valley city known as the “Black Palm Springs,” where Black people could buy property before World War II. Bruce’s Beach was the beachfront resort built in Manhattan Beach by Charles and Willa Bruce in 1912; the property was seized by the city, and the land owned by Los Angeles County until last year, when the property was transferred to the couple’s descendants.

Bradford helped secure $40 million in the 2022 state budget for Allensworth, including $10 million for a teaching and innovation farm. According to The Sun Gazette, $28 million will be used for a park visitor center and almost $2 million for a town civic center. But Bradford believes there’s more to be done.

a sunset over a desert town
The sun sets on Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in 2008. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“I think it has a nexus to reparations,” he said. “To show what was promised but was never delivered, but also what we had that was stolen from us.

“We need to know the full story. Far too often we look at where we are today and say, ‘Oh, things are great.’ But we’ve got to understand how we got here.”

Dennis Hutson, for his part, isn’t convinced the millions from the state budget will amount to reparations for the descendants of Allensworth settlers.

“It sounds like a good idea, but I just really wonder, is it really heartfelt?” Hutson said. “And if you owed me $100 and you want to give me a dime, is that really reparations?”

On the train ride back to Emeryville, I asked Butler how she was feeling.

“I really bristle when I hear about ‘the first African American who did this,’” she said. “(It’s) always something that was hidden, that never was brought to the surface.”



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