Allen Allensworth was born a slave in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 7, 1842. Levi and Phyllis Allensworth, his parents, bestowed on Allen (the youngest of 13 children) the desire to learn all he could and the heart to do whatever he must to ensure his future.
The Starbird family, who owned Allen’s mother, had “assigned” the boy to their son as his personal slave. The two boys became friends. Inevitably, young Starbird started teaching Allen to read—a crime in the South.
Allen was punished several times for his determination to educate himself and occasional attempts to run north to Canada. He was always caught and either beaten or sold “down river.” Fortunately, a horse-and-slave trader found Allen’s literacy a positive thing; he meant to train the slightly built youth as a racehorse rider. However, the Civil War got in their way—while they were in Louisville, the races were canceled as Union forces approached the city. Allen took his chances and followed them. They took him on as a nurse in the Army Hospital Corps of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was now a free man.
In 1863, Allensworth entered the U.S. Navy, shipping out as a first class seaman on the gunboat “Queen City.” He rose through the ranks quickly and was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1865. Two years later, Allen and his brother William opened two restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri; at about this time, he was able to complete his formal education. While studying theology at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee, he met Josephine Leavell, a pianist and music teacher.
In 1868, Allensworth took a position teaching school south of Louisville, where his “splendid character” and his obvious call to divinity brought him an offer to take charge of a school nearby. Before long, the First District Baptist Association asked him to become a traveling minister. Feeling inadequate, he enrolled in the Baptist Theological Institute at Nashville. After scraping by in his first year, he received help from another Baptist organization. To help pay his expenses, Allensworth preached to some small congregations—at times on the front porches of various members—and in time, those small congregations grew to impressive numbers.
In 1875, Reverend Allensworth was teaching school in Georgetown, Kentucky, but he was soon called to help establish a school for religious training of teachers and preachers. To this end, Allensworth and a group of Baptist ministers founded The State University.
In 1877, Allensworth was invited to become pastor of the State Street Baptist Church in Bowling Green. When several members of the congregation told him that a good preacher should be married, he approached Josephine, his betrothed, and told her it was time for them to wed. In September 1877, they were married in Trenton, Kentucky, and returned to Bowling Green to take up his new ministry.
The Reverend became attracted to politics, and, in both 1880 and 1884, he was elected to represent the Third Congressional District at the Republican National Convention. However, he refused to consider running for office himself unless the position was in keeping with his ministry. The Allensworths, becoming increasingly concerned with the welfare of their two daughters in Kentucky, found the conditions there repressive and not likely to improve their minds. The family soon accepted a “call” from a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they knew they would find libraries and museums.
In 1882, a soldier asked Allensworth to encourage the appointment of African American chaplains to minister to African American regiments. He informed Allensworth that in four years, the white chaplain of the 24th Infantry would retire, and that convinced the 44-year-old veteran to plan ahead. He found support from a number of political friends, and in 1886, on the retirement of the white chaplain, Allen Allensworth was appointed Chaplain to the 24th Infantry (known as the Buffalo Soldiers). Reverend Allensworth was, once again, in the Army.
Among the Allensworth family’s posts was a place in the middle of San Francisco Bay called Angel Island. On December 9, 1900, Chaplain Allensworth, now a Major, was assigned to Fort McDowell. Major Allensworth and his family were held in high regard among members of the garrison, and were welcome guests at any social function they cared to attend. When his commanding officer left Fort McDowell, he commented in a letter of farewell to Chaplain Allensworth: “The contentment and good behavior of the men of this garrison is largely due to you and your work.”
Allen Allensworth’s promotion to Major had not yet been confirmed, and he applied for confirmation so that he could retire at that rank. To the Chaplain’s—and everyone else’s—surprise, the Secretary of War decided in 1906 to promote him instead to Lieutenant Colonel, making him the highest-ranking African American officer of this time.
The newly retired Colonel took the opportunity to travel around the U.S., lecturing on the subject of African Americans taking initiative to create self-sufficient African American communities. He had already noted that many Black veterans were migrating to California, and he decided in 1906 to move to Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, he met educator William Payne, former miner John W. Palmer, minister William H. Peck, and real estate man Harry A. Mitchell. The five like-minded men agreed that they needed to create a town where African Americans could live in control of their own lives. In 1908 they formed the California Colony and Home Promotion Association, and began looking for farmland where they could settle and work together for the future of their families.
In Solito, the association found 80 acres of fertile land with water, right alongside a station stop for the Santa Fe Railroad, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The town grew and soon had homes, shops and stores, a school, a library, a hotel and a post office. Eventually, they traded the name Solito for Allensworth, and the town began to enjoy a feeling of community through a large number of church and social organizations.
Over time, however, circumstances changed for the town. In 1914, the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop to the town of Alpaugh. Then, water became a problem; it was largely unavailable. The Pacific Farming Company stopped supplying the town with the water it needed, but by the time the town won its suit against them, its old water system needed replacement. Without money enough to drill new wells, the town of Allensworth was on a downward spiral.
On September 15 of that same year, the Colonel was visiting Monrovia to speak at a church when a motorcycle struck him. His death the next morning delivered the final blow to Allensworth. Many of its residents had moved away to seek employment by the mid-1920s, following World War I, and the little town began to deteriorate. By the 1960s, arsenic had been found in the water supply; by 1973 it no longer appeared on the California map.
But Allensworth is known as the town that refused to die. The dream of Colonel Allensworth lives on. A group of dedicated supporters of that dream—including some former residents—has worked tirelessly to bring Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park back to life. Thanks to their dedication, Allensworth has made a comeback, preserved, restored and reconstructed for the education and inspiration of thousands of visitors from all over the world.