Living History: Allensworth, CA
Posted October 11, 2009 3:35 pm (about 3445 days ago)
This was another one of this trips that reminds one of how much there is to learn. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until the last five years or so that I started to realize the extent of African Americans in westward expansion. Since I was a kid I knew there were African Americans involved (Blazing Saddles started it), but I continued to be amazed by the high numbers of both men and women involved.
In terms of Allensworth itself, it wasn’t the first “Black town” I’ve ever been to, but it was the first historical one I’ve been to in this part of the United States. It was co-founded by Colonel Allensworth, the highest-ranking Black soldier at the time of his retirement. The town of Allensworth was the first and only town founded by African Americans in California as an attempt to create a place free of discrimination for African Americans. It must be noted that most of the Black people who settled here were well-off and included numerous professionals, even some who had summer homes in places such as Los Angeles or Alameda while living in Allensworth, or vice versa. At its peak, hundreds of people lived there. Interestingly enough, although perhaps not surprising, a great number of Mexicans also began to move in, before the original town was declared uninhabitable, partially due to arsenic being found in the water (and not due to Mexicans moving in!). There is a contemporary Allensworth nearby.
The modern day incarnation of the original town has several replicated and original buildings, including Colonel Allensworth’s home, the church, library, school, barns, and barbershop. The celebration featured a number of performances and vendors from all over the state, as well as visitors from church groups, motorcycle clubs, biking groups, schools, and various individuals. Christianity was a strong theme, and while the crowd and performances were primarily African American, other ethnicities also came to support and be educated.
The weather wasn’t obnoxiously hot, as it can be in this area, and there were a number of shuttles to take visitors around as the buildings were a bit spread out. The docents, dressed in clothing of the early 1900s, were very personable and made the visit much richer. I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t more reenactments, although we were told that there were plans to expand, including a Buffalo Soldiers’ camp. Thinking as a teacher, it would’ve been great for the students to have had the increased visual and hands-on experience, although they all still gave great feedback. Regarding the Buffalo Soldiers, they’ve always made me think of the complex relationships between peoples as they’re often revered for their role in the “Indian Wars,” helping the United States in its aggression towards Native Americans, as well as fighting in the Philippines against Filipinos. I don’t despise them, but I also don’t uncritically romanticize them. Too often an image of them, and of others of course, gets propped up to promote agenda, without seeing the conflicted/complex human beings behind the image.
Having said that, volunteer guide Emmett Harden, who incidentally was dressed as a Buffalo Soldier, took time out of his lunch to speak with me and some of the students about his personal ties to the town, including his father-in-law’s work to get it established as a state park, as well as Allensworth’s Bay Area connections (Colonel Allensworth was one of many African Americans stationed in San Francisco). Mr. Harden was from Sacramento, and like many of the African American volunteers, wanted to be sure that they were on hand to share their history. At different points in history only non-African Americans were park rangers! While the main stage with performers was interesting, the more memorable and impacting lessons came from speaking with descendents and relatives of those from the town.
Myself and many of the students definitely plan on coming back and I encourage anyone interested in history, sociology, or any related field to research Allensworth. It should go without saying that its historical significance isn’t limited to African Americans. If you visit, it’s a great place for learning and reflection. As always, do your homework in advance to make it more interesting. For me it was definitely a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon and the others I went with seemed to share the sentiment.