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Ghost Town Allensworth: The first township in US built and governed by African Americans

Petar Djajkovski

Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the very heart of San Joaquin Valley, lays the ghost town of Allensworth. Despite being a ghost town, which is not a peculiar thing at all on this website, this town is unique on another completely different level. It was the first and only town in the state of California that was completely established and governed only by African Americans. And all this happened in a time when African Americans had very few rights and opportunities in the great States of United America.

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, Allensworth, California, USA – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, Allensworth, California, USA – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

The man behind this small windswept dessert town was Allen Allensworth. He was born into slavery in Kentucky on April 7, 1842. Luckily he managed to escape during the time of the American Civil War and enlisted as a Union soldier. He was the first African American in history to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel. In the meantime he also became a minister and an educator of people. Before founding Allensworth in 1908, he helped in building numerous churches.

Lt. Colonel Allen Allensworth.

Lt. Colonel Allen Allensworth.

In 1908, by now a veteran of the U.S. Army, Allen Allensworth, along with Professor William Payne, Rev. William Peck. Rev. John W. Palmer, and Harry A. Mitchell, found a piece of land where they could materialize their dream: to build a town where African Americans could live free, own property, learn, create and live the American Dream. They chose and bought a 800-acre (320 ha) piece of land with good fertile soil, adequate water for farming, and a location close to the railroad corridor.

Allensworth House – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

Allensworth House – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

Very soon, African Americans from all over California and further started arriving to the chosen location. Craftsmen, farmers, ranchers, retired military personnel, artists, businessmen and many others joined the cause and helped building Allensworth. The first years of a new commune of any sorts are the most critical. To sort any problems and smooth the way to the future, the affairs of the town were governed by a council named Allensworth Progressive Association. Both men and woman were participants of the association and held responsible positions inside the community.

First Baptist Church – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

First Baptist Church – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

The economy of the town was largely based on agriculture. Most of the settlers were farmers growing wheat, sugar beet, cotton, or alfalfa. And of course where there is agriculture there is also livestock. They raised dairy cattle, turkeys, chickens and hares.

Apart from the private houses, this small town of Allensworth also had communal buildings, and businesses and public buildings were quickly established. It had a bakery, livery stable, barbershop, drugstore, church, library, school and a machine shop. Two years after the founding of the town a general store / Post Office building was running the post and supplies for the township. A nice addition to the town was The Allensworth Hotel, opened by Clara and John Morris. The hotel was not very big but always open for tourists. It had eight guestrooms and charged only 75 cents per room per night.

Allensworth Hotel- Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

Allensworth Hotel- Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

The most important building in the town of Allensworth is the school house. The town community prized it above all else, as it should be, and they believed in education–especially educating the young–as the only way to make a change and create a better future. The school house was used until 1972 and even to this day it’s been kept furnished as it was back in 1915 when it was built.

Allensworth Elementary School – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

Allensworth Elementary School – Author: Bobak Ha’Eri – CC BY 3.0

The State of California has done a good job in preserving the town and it’s surroundings. They are gradually restoring the towns buildings and keeping the place clean and open for visitors, history appreciators and ghost town enthusiasts. Special events are also organized to celebrate and honor the history and significance of the former community. The park next to the town has a visitor center and features a documentary film about Allensworth. Once a year a re-dedication ceremony is held. This ceremony reaffirms the values and visions of the original town pioneers.