In 1908, African American pioneers established the town of Allensworth forty miles north of Bakersfield as part of the broader Black Town Movement. Discover how these settlers not only built buildings, established businesses, and planted crops–they also inspired the imagination as they tested what was possible in rural California.
Photo Credit: Teachers at the Allensworth School, c. 1915 [090-2156]. Courtesy California State Parks.
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 5
“Back to the Land: Allensworth and the Black Utopian Dream”
Caroline Collins (Narrator): The California Dream is an iconic part of the Golden State’s identity. From the 19th century mining 49’ers who dreamed of striking it rich in California’s gold fields, to Hollywood hopefuls longing for fame in the spotlight, to the modern-day tech pioneers wagering for a chance at their Silicon Valley fortune, California has often sold itself as a land of opportunity.
In our last episode, we began a two-part discussion about some lesser-known opportunity seekers: Black settlers who formed communities with one another across California, supporting each other’s dreams of forging independent lives in the state–even when California itself didn’t live up to its promise.
The most well-known of these Black settlements in California is Allensworth. Founded in Tulare County in 1908, Allensworth was one of many Black towns in America rooted in principles that linked land ownership to Black independence.
Steve Ptomey: It is the quintessential American story. People doing what others said they couldn’t do and they’re doing it on their own.
Caroline Collins: And a big part of what they were doing went beyond the physical toll of building a town from the bottom up. In many ways, these settlers were also inspiring the imagination as they tested what was possible in rural California.
Lonnie Bunche: I think one of the powers of understanding Allensworth is that this is really a proactive attempt by an African-American community, not to simply disassociate itself from America, but to be a kind of beacon of hope, a beacon of possibility.
Caroline Collins: In this episode we’re going to finish our two-part discussion of Black settlements in rural California by diving into the history of Allensworth, not just because it’s an important part of state history that often gets overlooked. But because Allensworth also reminds us of the power of the Black imaginary–
Especially around the agrarian promise of ‘returning to the land.’
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: I’m Caroline Collins and this is the Cal Ag Roots podcast. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming to shed light on current issues in agriculture. This is the fifth episode in our We Are Not Strangers Here series. This series, which draws its name from writer Ravi Howard, highlights hidden histories of African Americans who have shaped California’s food and farming culture from early statehood to the present.
This six-part series is also connected to a traveling exhibit with the same name. The exhibit was originally designed to travel throughout California–we printed big, beautiful banners full of all kinds of photos from the archives that accompany the stories we’re telling. But then, the pandemic happened. And so, now we’re digitally reconceiving the We Are Not Strangers Here exhibit so that people can still enjoy it even during the pandemic. It’s not up yet, but we’re working on it. Please check out www.agroots.org for updates.
Caroline Collins: As we learned in our last episode these settlements, where Black folks lived with one another, were also often established by Black people. And they generally were in rural California. But they differed in size and location. And they had varying degrees of intentionality. Some were loosely formed by settler preference. Others grew out of exclusion from Wwhite areas or proximity to employment. And many of these communities weren’t self-sufficient. So they were still dependent on the resources and infrastructures of neighboring Wwhite communities.
Allensworth, however, was established with specific aims of self-reliance, like other Black towns that had come before it.
In fact, historian Lawrence B. de Graaf writes that quote “Since slavery [many] African Americans have sought refuge in black communities [and] various towns have been labeled ‘all-black towns’–separate and formal communities established with clear economic and civic intentions.”
And while the economic and political relevance of these towns can’t be overstated, it’s important to also take the time to reflect on their imaginative significance.
(Slow-tempo orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: In other words, every Black town established in California–and the nation–first began as an idea. A dream conceived by Black settlers, who, before they ever purchased land, laid blueprints, or raised timber frameworks, they first had to believe that doing so could be possible.
One significant source of inspiration for this imaginative capacity were ‘back to land’ movements led by visionary Black pioneers.
And that’s an important fact to recognize. Because all too often, Black folks in California aren’t associated with lofty ideals about ‘returning to the land.’ Instead, there’s a prevalent idea that the utopian back to the land movement is somehow the purview of Wwhite hippies.
That assumption is especially significant when thinking about the history of Black people in rural California. So this episode acknowledges the longstanding Black imagination about utopian rural life by remembering that Wwhite people weren’t the only folks dreaming up these communities.
We talked to our podcast’s Historical Advisor, Susan Anderson, History Curator and Program Manager at the California African American Museum about the significance of this version of the Black imaginary–one that’s tied to the promise of the land. And she reminded us just how far these kinds of visions extended–sometimes even beyond domestic borders.
For example, in 1918, African Americans in Los Angeles promoted a plan to purchase land south of the border for a settlement they were calling Little Liberia.
Susan Anderson: It was supposed to be in Mexico, in Baja.
Caroline Collins: The project was led by Hugh Macbeth, a Black attorney who would later play a pivotal role in helping Japanese Americans hold on to their properties after being detained in internment camps. The Little Liberia organizers hoped to establish their all Black settlement just northeast of the coastal town of Ensenada.
Susan Anderson: There was a reason why they wanted to be in Mexico because of escaping racism. They were being welcomed by the Mexican government and the governor.
Caroline Collins: Hoping to initially settle 200 families who would eventually grow the town to 20,000–
Susan Anderson: They worked hard and they traveled back and forth. The elaborateness of the plans were really interesting.
Caroline Collins: But, in the end, these plans never reached fruition. The Mexican government eventually withdrew support due to concerns over racial tensions and the project also faced financial challenges so–
Susan Anderson: Little Liberia never existed but you have to mention it because of the imagination that’s represented.
(Slow tempo orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: However, unlike Little Liberia, many Black towns across the nation did make the leap from conception to construction.
The nation’s earliest Black colonies were actually established in the south during Reconstruction. But by the 1870s, African American pioneers began founding all-black towns across the Western United States as well led by visionaries like Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a formerly enslaved businessman and activist from Tennessee who came to be known as the “Father of the African American Exodus.” At the peak of The Black Town Movement, some colonies drew hundreds of immigrants on a daily basis.
Fleeing racial persecution, these Black settlers established places like: Blackdom, New Mexico, Nicodemus, Kansas, and Greenwood, Oklahoma–home to the “Black Wall Street,” which was one of the most prosperous African American communities in the nation until violent Wwhite mobs destroyed it in 1921, burning down thirty-five city blocks and killing and injuring hundreds of residents.
In fact, it was often Wwhite resentment towards these communities’ intentional independence that made them targets for the very racial violence their residents were attempting to flee in the first place. Despite these risks, Black pioneers established these settlements across the country–including California.
For instance, by the early 1900s, 30-40, mainly landowning, Black families prospered in the farming colony of Fowler. And just four miles away, the quote “colored settlement of Bowles was one of four towns in California cited at the time as being both populated and governed entirely or almost entirely by African Americans.”
And though places like Visalia and Hanford weren’t considered all-black towns, significant num
bers of Black farmers resided there and in other cities in the Valley, establishing cultural institutions from churches to social clubs to an all Black baseball team in Visalia.
Progressive and imaginative, these settlements tapped into a thriving Black imaginary around the promise of rural life. For example, Black people began homesteading in 1914 in Sidewinder Valley, a desert area in San Bernardino County near the African American-owned Murray’s Dude Ranch. And this re-imagining of the rural even impacted forms of leisure. For instance Val Verde, a Black-owned resort that premiered in 1924 in Los Angeles County, gained a reputation as “the Black Palm Springs.”
But, as we mentioned at the top of this episode, of these independent settlements it’s the town of Allensworth in Tulare County that’s perhaps the most well-known. Susan Anderson explains the broader significance of the town.
Susan Anderson: Allensworth is a group of people who said we’re going to create a community that sends this message to the world.
Caroline Collins: A message grounded in Black possibility.
Founded in 1908, this all Black town drew more than 200 residents to its utopian vision. That may not seem like much in today’s standards, but for a brand new town in the American West that was a substantial amount. For instance, Tombstone, Arizona–site of the historic shootout at the OK Corral–began with only half as many settlers.
Today a state historic park preserves the history of the town of Allensworth. Steve Ptomey, Chief Interpreter for the California State Parks Great Basin District, oversees the public programs for 11 parks, including Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
A trained archaeologist, part of Ptomey’s duties include detailing the life of the park’s namesake and town co-founder Colonel Allen Allensworth, who was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1842.
Steve Ptomey: He was sold down river several times for learning how to read.
Caroline Collins: Col. Allensworth first began learning to read in secret from the son of his original owners, the Starbird family, who also owned his mother Phyllis. When the rest of the Starbirds found out, they didn’t sell Allen, but placed him with another family who were Quakers instead. But then the Starbirds discovered the Quaker family was continuing to teach the bright child and even was allowing him to attend a school for enslaved children. So they took him back and sent him to their relatives further down the Mississippi River in order to put an end to his education. But Allen continued to learn at every chance, in spite of violent repercussions for doing so. That meant anything from whippings to repeated sell-offs, one owner after another.
Steve Ptomey: So he was someone who had an intrinsic desire to learn and to improve his position, not only for himself and his family and of course his people.
Caroline Collins: When the Civil War erupted and Union soldiers neared Louisville, Allen–after two initial attempts–successfully escaped his final owner and joined the Union forces. He served in the U.S. Navy for two years. And after the war–
Steve Ptomey: He goes into the seminary and it becomes part pastor, part educator.,
Caroline Collins: After ministering to congregations around Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, Allensworth heard that the U.S. Army was looking for Black chaplains to serve in African American units. He applied to be the chaplain of the 24th Infantry. He was accepted and served for 20 years, becoming the first African American to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel, making him a highly ranked commissioned officer that’s the equivalent of a Commander in the Navy.
Steve Ptomey: Everywhere he went, he established a school in part to make sure people knew the basics of reading, writing and some basic arithmetic. So they couldn’t be taken advantage of.
Caroline Collins: A meticulous man, his lifelong dedication to learning was often evident in his own personal library. He was well read and enjoyed classics. Perhaps in part because of one of his mother’s last acts of maternal care before the Starbirds sent her child away from her:
Steve Ptomey: She gave him some money and said, you know, you go buy a book and a comb and put everything in the book and use that comb to comb everything but knowledge out of your mind. Focus on that. Cause that’s the key.
(Orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: His mother had given him all the money she possessed: a silver half dollar. With that, he did eventually purchase his first text: The Webster’s Spelling Book.
Caroline Collins: After retirement, Colonel Allensworth became further interested in Black independence and especially what he saw as the economic, social, and political promise of the West.
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture and now the Director of the Smithsonian Institution, has written about Allensworth’s keen grasp of California’s simultaneous promise and constraints. He says that Col. Allensworth came to California
Lonnie Bunch (NPR): Because he’d been there many times with his troop, and was stunned by the discrimination he faced in southern California, and decided, along with four other men, that they would create a colony somewhere in California where, quote, the Negro could be free of prejudice.
Caroline Collins: These four other men were also leaders in their respective communities across the country: Professor William Payne was an educator who because of racist practices was denied a teaching license in Ohio; Dr. William H. Peck was a Los Angeles African Methodist Episcopal Minister; J.W. Palmer was a successful miner in Nevada; and Harry Mitchell was a Los Angeles realtor. Together, they became the core members of a visionary group.
On June 30, 1908, they formed the California Colony and Home Promoting Association–a land development organization with offices in downtown Los Angeles. Their first project was the town of Allensworth, named after The Colonel. Again, Steve Ptomey.
Steve Ptomey: Think about the monumental effort it is to create a town out of nothing. You know, it’s not like they have the internet, it’s not like they have contractors that they can just come, Hey, come build this, you know, you build it and they will come. No, he’s going out to recruit people to invest their life savings.
Caroline Collins: They were selling a dream.
Their ‘back to land’ movement was part of a long tradition. One rooted in an agrarian ideal dating back to advocates like Thomas Jefferson who linked lofty goals like independence, morality, and equality to notions of land ownership and agriculture.
In fact, in the eyes of developers to educators like Booker T. Washington, California was fast becoming a beacon for such land-based opportunity. Allensworth promotional materials latched on to this vision, marketing the proposed colony as a community offering quote “corn billowing in the wind” flowing “artesian water…paved streets, and pretty houses by beds of flowers.”
Steve Ptomey: He pitched this idea of being a gentleman, farmer of, you know, eating the fruit from your own trees and picking it for your own benefit, which has had a lot of broad appeal.
Caroline Collins: It was an appealing vision, but one that was difficult to pull off. Unable to purchase enough land to initially sustain a township, the Association entered into a promotional agreement with three Wwhite-owned real estate companies. These companies laid out an initial 80-acre township and they struck a bargain. The Association would bring in the settlers and in exchange the development companies would reserve the land for Black farmers.
The association advertised nationwide in African American newspapers, and in just three years sold more than four hundred parcels of land.
Residents began moving in. They expanded their acreage and established an artesian well system. That meant their wells reached deep water that was compressed and protected between layers of rocks. They planted farms, started businesses, and soon–they had a thriving town.
Steve Ptomey: It had a voting district. It has a school district, a post office.
Caroline Collins: Key indications that the town was actually becoming a town and not just a collection of homes.
Steve Ptomey: It had rail access and had a Telegraph line… And it was a big deal.
Caroline Collins: Because those technologies weren’t just key to the agricultural businesses many Allensworth citizens hoped to launch. Their rail access also enabled them to open a depot station that could serve the wider area beyond their town. And that wasn’t all they built.
Steve Ptomey: They had a full church. Now they didn’t have a pastor that stayed on site. They had a circuit preacher minister that came around.
Caroline Collins: They were missing one major town staple though.
Steve Ptomey: The one thing that you don’t see in Allensworth is a bar. It was a dry community.
Caroline Collins: The people of Allensworth even elected the first African American Constable and Justice of the Peace West of the Rockies though crime in the town was almost nonexistent.
Steve Ptomey: I believe in one of the worst things that they did with Henry Singleton had planned a, a senior prank when he was in the school and they were going to take apart somebody’s buggy and put it on the roof and they got it apart and they got part of the buggy on the roof and then they got caught. So they had to put it back down on the ground and reassemble it again, you know, fairly classic hi-jinks.
Caroline Collins: In other words, it was a classic American town, full of hardworking people looking to ensure a prosperous future for themselves and their children.
Steve Ptomey: If you were to look at the material culture of the town, you know, speaking from an archeologist point of view. I could not tell this town apart from any other town in the Valley at the same time period. It had all the earmarks of a town that was going to grow.
Caroline Collins: In addition to the Baptist church, hotel, general store, and schoolhouse, Allensworth also had a blacksmith shop and a barbershop. There was also thriving arts and culture in the town. They boasted an orchestra, glee club, brass band, and the first branch of the Tulare County Library. The founders even had expansion hopes for the surrounding community as well where they wanted to eventually open a polytechnic college, one that would be considered the ‘Tuskegee of the West.’
It was all a thriving enterprise. For many reasons. But especially because the Allensworth founders also had the benefit of envisioning the town during the 20th century, decades into the Black town movement.
In other words, in 1908, when Col. Allensworth and his partners launched the town, they weren’t just joining a long history of strategic African American settlement. They were in many ways looking to push the movement to new barriers.
Caroline Collins: Dr. Ashley Adams studies preservation policies and planning for African American heritage sites like the National Park Service’s Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas and California’s Col. Allensworth State Historic Park. She explains the evolution of later Black towns like Allensworth.
Ashley Adams: Nicodemus, was founded in 1877.
Caroline Collins: Which was some 30 years before Allensworth was established, so–
Ashley Adams: The people of Allensworth were a little bit further advanced than the people of Nicodemus.
Caroline Collins: They were also generally more well off.
Ashley Adams: A lot of them were established already and were educated. You know, one lady moved from Oakland. It was her second home so it was kind of the next level for them.
(Uplifting orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: This ‘next level’ included viewing African American colonization not only as a means of escaping persecution, but as a key mechanism for broader structural change. Again, Lonnie Bunch, Director of the Smithsonian.
Lonnie Bunch: They recognized that what they were doing was greater than them. While they definitely wanted to have a community where there could be Bblack business and shopkeepers and school teachers, they recognized that their mission was bigger.
Caroline Collins: It was a goal with national intentions.
Lonnie Bunch: If they could be a successful community and show economic progress, and show leadership, they felt that would be a beacon of change that would echo around the country. That people would see Allensworth and say, African-Americans can control their own destiny, can be contributing members of American society. And their hope would be that it would help to change the racial dynamics in this country.
Caroline Collins: At the core of these dreams, however, was their grounding as an agricultural community.
Caroline Collins: Before they started farming though, The Allensworth settlers researched cash crops that would have a quick turnover. Eventually, they settled on alfalfa–a choice ahead of its time considering that alfalfa is now the predominant crop of the area.
But it’s also a crop that requires a lot of water. And they lived in a region where to this day fortunes rise and fall according to who can gain access to–and control of– this vital resource.
Lonnie Bunch: Allensworth, as a community, was really in an area where water was key. And when the land was acquired, they were promised that there would always be pumps, and there would always be the kind of level of water they needed. And that failed.
Caroline Collins: In fact, as early as 1913–just five years into the town’s founding they faced their first extensive threat to their irrigation water source when the Pacific Farming Company acquired the region’s water supply from the previous welling company. Then it attempted to refuse selling water to the Black residents of Allensworth, who sued.
The residents won their case, but only after expending time, money, and enduring the loss of critical water while they fought it out in court.
Lonnie Bunch: Once the water started to go, that called into question their ability to farm.
Caroline Collins: And the town’s water crisis wasn’t their only looming challenge.
Lonnie Bunch: They also made a business of being a depot station, where the farmers from the local area would come to put their crops, because the Santa Fe railroad train would go through there. But the farmers complained that they had to deal with these Black people, and ultimately, a spur was created to bypass – for the railroad to bypass Allensworth, that took some of the business away.
Caroline Collins: Then, tragedy struck. Just six years after the town’s founding, Colonel Allensworth unexpectedly died when crossing a street in Monrovia in Los Angeles County.
(Pensive orchestral music)
Lonnie Bunch: When the colonel was killed in – run down by a motorcycle in 1914, suddenly the community doesn’t have the bearings it once had.
Caroline Collins: Initially, the town still managed to prosper even after Col. Allensworth’s death by pivoting their marketing efforts. They started recruiting residents interested in relocating to California for health and political reasons. They also advertised to veterans because they were attracted to Col. Allensworth’s past military experience. But by the late 1920s, already besieged by racist efforts, which coincided with growing industrialization and urbanization, Allensworth began to decline.
A lot of the town children started to move away, joining nationwide trends like moving to cities and getting jobs in factories and other industrial fields. Also, even though a new company eventually took over the colony’s wells, the township continued to face massive drought, rising arsenic levels, and regional water consolidation by powerful industry titans like the Central Valley’s cotton king, J.G. Boswell. It was a set of conditions that was hard to negotiate. And so, by the Great Depression, the town had dwindled due to its many challenges.
Though most left the town, it was never completely abandoned. And to commemorate its history, in 1976 Col. Allensworth State Historic Park was established on its 260 acres.
Caroline Collins: The state historic park wasn’t Allensworth’s only lasting legacy. By the 1920s, the Southern California rural town of El Centro, located near the U.S. / Mexico border was viewed by many as a successor to Allensworth.
Though not technically an all-Black town, the African American enclave of El Centro became a hub for African American opportunity–especially for educators. William Payne, who was also one of the founders of Allensworth, re-settled in El Centro. There, he became the principal of Dunbar Elementary and then Douglass High School where he helped provide an important training ground for Black teachers in California who, because of discrimination, were denied valuable classroom experience by Wwhite districts, and then told they didn’t have enough experience to be hired.
African American teachers received the classroom experience they were deprived of gaining elsewhere. For example, Ruth Acty, because of the opportunities extended to her in El Centro, became the first African American teacher hired by the Berkeley Unified School District in 1943–an achievement indirectly connected to the legacy of Allensworth.
Caroline Collins: When thinking about the history of Allensworth, it’s hard not to focus on all the promise that wasn’t fulfilled. And the extraordinary measures that many took to thwart these settlers’ California Dream. Think about it. The Pacific Water Company refused to provide Allensworth citizens with the basic need of water. And the Santa Fe Railroad built a spur line–or a small branch line–just to bypass Allensworth so Wwhite farmers wouldn’t have to do business with the town and use their depot. Those were significant efforts that state historical narratives need to include and reckon with.
But, taking the time to reflect on Allensworth also highlights other important parts of California history. For example, Allensworth and other Black Towns help shine a light on Black people’s long standing relationship to ‘back to land’ movements that are often viewed as very recent and very Wwhite. And in doing so, Allensworth also reminds us of the power of the Black imaginary–even in the midst of structural inequality. Or as Lonnie Bunche puts it–
Lonnie Bunche: And in some ways, its greatest impact is that the people that once lived there became people who believed in education, believed in change, believed that they could make America better.
Caroline Collins: In many ways, the Black communities across rural California that we’ve discussed in these past two episodes still provide valuable examples for us, even today as Black folks across the state and nation continue to face systemic barriers and bias when going about their daily lives like the people of Allensworth who just wanted to make a home, a community, and a just society for themselves and their families.
Dr. Ashley Adams frames this inspiration this way:
Ashley Adams: Places like Allensworth provide us with a model and example of trying to progress and work together to move forward. And we need that today. We need to know that that’s what our ancestors had in mind for us is to work together and to support each other.
Caroline Collins: And so, she focuses on what these settlers did accomplish against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Ashley Adams: There’s a lot that we can learn from the Allensworth settlers because not only did they build the town, but they struggled, you know, and were challenged setting it up and they overcame those challenges and it’s inspiring.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: The legacy of these Black ‘back to land’ movements in California continued into the modern age. Even in urban areas, where many African Americans brought agricultural practices to city living. And today, Black farmers continue to cultivate the land in rural California. To learn more about these modern practices, tune in to our sixth and final episode, “Still Here: Black Farmers & Agricultural Stewardship in the Modern Age.”
Caroline Collins: Thanks for listening to the Cal Ag Roots podcast. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one at www.agroots.org, or on Apple Podcasts. And by the way, if you subscribe and rate this show on Apple Podcasts, it will help other people discover it.
Now some important acknowledgements: We Are Not Strangers Here is a collaboration between Susan Anderson of the California African American Museum, the California Historical Society, Exhibit Envoy and Amy Cohen, myself–Dr. Caroline Collins from UC San Diego, and the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Our traveling exhibit banners were written by Susan Anderson, our project’s Primary History Advisor. And this podcast was written and produced by me with production help from Lucas Brady Woods.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Visit calhum.org to learn more), and the 11th Hour Project at the Schmidt Family Foundation.
And finally, special thanks to NPR’s News & Notes for the use of their audio of Lonnie Bunche in this episode and to scholar Delores Nason McBroome for her detailed research on Allensworth which helped us tell this story.
–End of Episode–
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Huge THANKS to the following generous supporters of Cal Ag Roots. This project was made possible with support from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation and California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.