FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

A little known piece of black history could be overwhelmed by, well, a herd of cows. That's what will happen if the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approves a mega-dairy across the street from the former site California's only black-founded and governed town.

Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports.

SASHA KHOKHA: Col. Allen Allensworth was a freed slave who believed the only way African-Americans could live in true freedom was to create and govern their own town. He made that dream a reality in 1908 when he founded the community of Allensworth.

(Soundbite of state park service video)

Unidentified Man: (Founder, Allensworth colony): Here you will be on the main line of the Santa Fe Railway system, within easy reach of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

KHOKHA: In this state park service video, an actor recreates Allen's first appeals to potential settlers.

(Soundbite of state park service video)

Unidentified Man: You will raise your own festivals, pick your own fruit. Not overshadowed in such overwhelming numbers that we see no beauty in ourselves.

KHOKHA: At its peak, the town was home to some 300 residents. Many were middle class families from Oakland or Los Angeles who ran businesses catering to passing train travelers. Others were farmers. But the town went downhill when railroad officials moved the train depot a few miles away.

(Soundbite of train whistle)

Today, Allensworth is a tiny farm worker town surrounded by fields and populated mostly by Latinos. The original settlement has been made into a state park. Some African-Americans still live on the edge of the park. Cornelius Ed Pope moved here with his parents some two decades after the town was founded.

Mr. CORNELIUS POPE (Resident, Allensworth County): Well, my dad and mom - they were always somewhat militant - they left Oklahoma and got out to California. When they heard about Allensworth and it was an all-black town, they immediately just, hey, let's go there. And they moved in here. This is where I'll die. It's not too bad.

KHOKHA: Pope was among those who successfully petitioned the California legislature to protect Allensworth as a state park in 1979.

Mr. POPE: A lot of people felt that Allensworth was African-Americans pulling away from the American principles, ideals and all that kind of good stuff. Get out here isolated, we don't want no white folk here in this town. We're all by ourselves. We're going to do this on our own. There was a pull away. Actually, what it was was it's one of those all-American stories.

KHOKHA: Today, hundreds of supporters attend annual picnics to celebrate Black History Month and Juneteenth in the park.

Mr. POPE: Who can tell the story of black people, the black experience in California, better than we can, better than we black people can?

KHOKHA: Pope says it's hard to imagine the park would be the same if two big dairies with more than 7,000 cows are built right across the street.

Mr. POPE: The smell, the flies. These dairy flies, they bite. We wouldn't be able to have any more picnics here. That would take out the barbecue and the music and the dancing. That would all be gone. I think it's called environmental racism.

Mr. DAVID ALBERS (Attorney): I just don't understand how anyone can characterize this as a race issue.

KHOKHA: David Albers is an attorney for the farmer who wants to put the two dairies on his land. Albers says the dairies will benefit the county and the current residents of the town next to the state park, now mostly Latino farmer workers.

Mr. ALBERS: The dairies will provide about 60 full-time year-round jobs. So this project is really good news for the people of Allensworth.

KHOKHA: Albers says the permit process has taken 10 years and his client has had to meet stringent county requirements. Roger Richards is the consultant hired by the county to write the environmental impact report for the new dairies. He says he's used the latest fly research to determine that flies aren't likely to invade the state park.

Mr. ROGER RICHARDS (Environmental Consultant): Flies generally can make it about three miles. These dairies are within three miles of the community. But I can't take a direction as to how a fly is going to move. We don't think they're going to be a significant problem to them.

Ms. NETTIE MORRISON (President, Allensworth Town Council): The flies are not the issue. The water's not an issue. The air is not an issue. Do they think we are insane? God gave us common sense. Where there's cows, there's a smell.

KHOKHA: Nettie Morrison is president of the Allensworth Town Council. She heard about the history of the town and gave up her life in the city to move here 30 years ago, long after most African-Americans had left Allensworth.

Ms. MORRISON: You know, you can relocate a dairy. You can't relocate our history.

KHOKHA: Dozens of supporters of the Allensworth State Park, including Col. Allensworth's daughter, have testified against the new dairies. And residents like Nettie Morrison and Ed Pope say they'll do whatever it takes to stop thousands of cows from moving in across the street.

Mr. POPE: This is a cultural monument and dedicated to the black pioneers of California. Just to make a cow bathroom out of it, nah, they can't do that.

KHOKHA: The Tulare County Board of Supervisors is expected to make a decision on whether to permit the new dairies tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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