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

By Lakshmi Sara

Sept. 9, 2022

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.”

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.

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