Allensworth to preserve its history

Jermaine Johnson II

Ownership of the historic town’s cemetery will be transferred from the county to the community services district

ALLENSWORTH – California’s first Black community resides in southwest Tulare County, and now the town’s residents have a chance to preserve even more of its history. The city’s cemetery is the resting place of over 45 of the town’s original settlers including a few Buffalo Soldiers, which were some of the first Black people to have fought in the Civil War and World War I. The Tulare County Board of Supervisors are now in the process of transferring ownership of the Allensworth cemetery to the Allensworth Community Services District (ACSD).

The cemetery was formerly owned by a private group that passed away decades ago. Since then, there has been no one formally in charge of upkeep and maintenance. As a result, conditions have deteriorated over the years. The county stepped in to take it over but that forced the townspeople to go through the county in order to have a loved one buried there. According to Supervisor Pete Vander Poel, it doesn’t make sense for people to have to go through that process which is why this transfer of ownership needs to take place. Above all, he deems it important because this is what the community members are asking for as they desire to preserve the history and offer burials to residents in the future. The goal is to have it become a historical site, restore the grounds, find where the bodies are, then replace the headstones.

The process to transfer ownership officially began last September. The county disclaimed interest in the property, but they are not allowed to directly transfer ownership to the ACSD as it is another governmental authority. That is where the Friends of Allensworth (FOA), a local nonprofit whose mission is to support, promote, and advance educational and interpretive activities at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, will step in to seek quiet title action in order to own the property. While that is happening, the ACSD must activate latent cemetery maintenance powers in order to own the cemetery. That was approved on Wednesday Jan. 20 by the Tulare County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) who also voted in favor of expanding the territory of the ACSD to include the cemetery. Once the FOA officially owns the property, then they will transfer to the ACSD.

The town’s history is commemorated in the Allensworth State Historic Park which includes original buildings rearranged to replicate the town as it looked in its earliest days. The Allensworth Cemetery isn’t preserved by the state as part of the park since it is located several miles outside of it. After the owners of the cemetery passed away, all maintenance efforts have been conducted by community volunteers. At one point in its history, farmers came in and grew crops on the sacred land where the town’s ancestors were buried. The local townspeople eventually forced the farmers out, but it was hard to tell which parts of the land were gravesites.

Upon arrival to the cemetery, it is difficult to distinguish it from a withered plot of land. There is no paved road that leads to it, just a dirt trail. There are no borders surrounding the cemetery to determine when it starts and ends. There is only one decayed sign, and just a few deteriorated headstones that doesn’t fully honor the dozens of deceased that rest beneath the land. Once the ACSD is able to attain ownership, the journey to revive the cemetery and restore its significance can officially begin.

The history worth preserving

In 1908, Allensworth became California’s first town to be founded, financed and governed by Black people. It is named after Colonel Allen Allensworth who was born into slavery and then escaped by seeking refuge as a Union soldier during the Civil War. He went on to become the highest-ranking Black soldier in the U.S. Armed Forces and the first to become a lieutenant colonel. After leaving the Army, he lived in Los Angeles and led a group that wanted to create a utopian society for Black people during a time of vast racial tension. They settled on the Central Valley because it was close enough to Los Angeles and the Bay Area which is where most Black people lived at the time. It was also great for farming as agriculture was the main driver of the town’s economy. Allensworth also had both a Sante Fe railroad stop and a postal stop so it served as a hub for people commuting for business. Local residents created various types of businesses that mostly served the consistent traffic of people from the railroad stop and postal stop.

Initially the town had 10 residents in 1912 but grew to nearly 300 over the next 10-15 years. The town’s downfall came in the late 1920s when the land suffered from irrigation issues. High levels of alkaline were found in the soil and the water supply began drying up. Irrigation water was promised by Pacific Farming Company but a sufficient supply was never delivered. The land had several artesian wells and the residents petitioned the state for gas powered pumps to run the wells, but they were denied.

Another big blow to the town’s economy happened when the railroad and postal stops moved to Alpaugh which is seven miles away. That move took away a lot of business and income away from the town. In a time where most people mainly commuted by horse or on foot, it was difficult for business owners to commute to Alpaugh to sell their goods.

Since many residents were no longer able to make a living, they began moving out of the town back to other areas of the state such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

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