A California State Park Founded by Blacks
By Cheryl Brown
Allensworth is a place of possibilities, and an example of how people could dream of a way when there was not a way," said keynote speaker Lonnie Bunch, Director, of the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Centennial celebration of Allensworth last weekend. The program included, choirs, dancers, singers and dramatic presentations; a living history interpretation, of the role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the region by Ranger Shelton Johnson, recognition of the descendants of Allensworth, a speech from Allenworth's 90-year-old granddaughter, Josephine Blodgett Smith, jazz singer Phyllis Battle, a fly-over of the famous California Red Tails all brought together with an outstanding emcee, actor William Allen Young.
Over 6,000 citizens and former residents joined dignitaries for the two day 100th celebration of the founding of the town located outside of Bakersfield in Tulare County. The town, that is now a state park, was founded by former slaves who wanted self reliance. Named for one of the founders Col. Allen Allensworth, was born in Kentucky in 1842, escaped, joined the Navy, became a teacher and a minister and then joined the 24th U.S. Infantry as a Chaplain. He became the highest ranking Black in the Army. Also listed in the founding group was Mr. William Payne,
"The story of Allensworth would not have come to light if it were not for the late Ed Pope who lived there as a child. On both days of the celebration he was remembered with a moment of silence and spoken about by his son. When Pope began working for the Department of Parks and Recreation as a draftsman, he saw lesser areas being recognized and brought the town up to his superiors. He felt that Allensworth was historically significant and began speaking with anyone who would listen. It was a difficult time for him. No one wanted to hear his story. He quit; and the organizations of the state National Council of Negro Women was among the first to sign on. In 1970 the Legislature called for a feasibility study and in 1976 the park was formally dedicated.
Recently, the park was threatened by a plan to put a dairy farm nearby. Assembly member Wilmer "Aminia" Carter, long affiliated with the town through her involvement in the NCNW authored a bill to save Allensworth. Fontana Councilmember and State Park Commissioner Acquanetta Warren, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger worked to save the park, settling on a plan to buy the development rights surrounding the town.
Lonnie Bunch, Director of the Smithsonian Institute in his keynote address suggested African Americans are in a continuum. "We are standing on a lot of shoulders and it is important to look at Col. Allensworth. He and others allow us to believe we can be who we can be. It was a thriving city on the hill that would prove to a doubting America that African Americans when given simple fairness could govern, produce crops, develop businesses and contribute to the surrounding community."
The message was serious, it spoke to the past, the present and it begs to look at the future of the Park.
Mark Ridley Thomas, chair of the Black Caucus, said that Allensworth was a thriving municipality where African Americans functioned independent from, yet cooperatively with the wider society to achieve self-respect, self sufficiency, self-determination and prosperity. He and other members of the Caucus, Assmebly Members Wilmer Carter and Mike Davis, Curren Price, Sandre Swanson, participated in the activities. Others joining them were: Senator Dean Flores, Assembly member Nicole Parra and Supervisor Connie Conway and Mayor Nettie Morrison. Speaker of the House, Karen Bass also spoke of the ingenuity of the Allensworth community. "
As they celebrated the present, with the Centennial celebration, Ruth Coleman, State Parks Director and Ted Jackson, Deputy Director and for many years the face of Allensworth for State Parks said they have an eye on the future. The future for the park is to continue to re-create the towns structures and the most ambitious is to build a $10 million dollar visitor center. " The department has invested $13 million in the park but what is missing in the 2018 recommendation is a more complete visitor and interpretive center," said Jackson. He continued, "we are proposing is to light a spark under folks to raise the money in a private/public partnership to build a first class center to provide visitors with a more complete experience. Why is that so important? "It is important because it is another American story. It is the story of the thousands who came to America, it is the values and attributes of a group of people who had courage, vision, and determination for a better life. It shows all people the story that Black Americans were imbedded in the California story." He said.
Hardy Brown, President of California Black Media and honorary committee member said that Allensworth shows the depth and breath and resilience of Black people in America and how they used adversity to overcome the obstacles they face in a land the was built with the free labor of the ancestors.
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