FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. Here's another listener favorite from 2008.
On August 3rd, 1908, Colonel Allen Allensworth filed the site plan to start a town in California's San Joaquin Valley. He was born a slave in 1842 in Louisville, Kentucky, and went on to serve in the military. He eventually moved to California, where he purchased 800 acres in Tulare County, along the Santa Fe rail line. The town of Allensworth became the first in California to be founded and funded solely by African-Americans.
At its height, it had a bustling economy with a schoolhouse, a church and a library. Allensworth is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and for some perspective, we return to Lonnie Bunch. He's the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Lonnie, great to have you back on the show.
Mr. LONNIE BUNCH (Founding Director, Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture): My pleasure.
CHIDEYA: So Allensworth, founded a hundred years ago in California's Central Valley. Describe what it was like to be a black person in that area at that historical moment.
Mr. BUNCH: Well, imagine, if you will, it's the time in America when segregation is the law of the land, when discrimination against African-Americans was the norm, rather than being unusual. It was a time when a hundred black men per year were lynched in the South.
It was a time when most blacks lived in the South and were stuck in low-level jobs, share croppers, porters, maids. It was a time when it was hard for people, especially African-Americans, to believe that there would be a better day, and yet they did. And Allensworth was really an example of how a community came together to believe, but also to work hard to find a better day.
CHIDEYA: So who was the man after whom this town is named?
Mr. BUNCH: Allen Allensworth, great name, one of the most interesting figures in history. This is a guy who was born as a slave in Kentucky, ultimately after two tries, escapes, becomes a free man and joins the United States Navy, because he wants to participate in the Civil War.
After serving in the Navy in the Civil War, he basically has a religious conversion, becomes a minister around Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, and then he stumbles upon a former - a soldier who says to him, you know, we need black chaplains in the military. In those days, there were four units, the 9th and 10th cavalry, the 24th, 25th infantry.
He applied to be the chaplain of the 24th infantry. He was there for 20 years. Retired as lieutenant colonel, came to California, because he'd been there many times with his troop, and was stunned by the discrimination he faced in southern California, and decided, along with four other men, that they would create a colony somewhere in California where, quote, the Negro could be free of prejudice.
CHIDEYA: So Allensworth was meant to be a haven from discrimination, and it wasn't the only town of its type.
Mr. BUNCH: Well, what happens is that there have been a history of African-American towns in Massachusetts, in New Jersey, Boli, Oklahoma, Nicodemus, Kansas. And so Allensworth on the surface is just like that, an attempt to create an oasis free of racism.
But what I think is so exciting about Allensworth as a community is that they recognized that what they were doing was greater than them. While they definitely wanted to have a community where there could be black business and shop keepers and school teachers, they recognized that their mission was bigger. If they could be a successful community and show economic progress, and show leadership, they felt that would be a beacon of change that would echo around the country. That people would see Allensworth and say, African-Americans can control their own destiny, can be contributing members of American society. And their hope would be that would help to change the racial dynamics in this country.
CHIDEYA: Of course, you move on, and troubled times hit. The Colonel died in 1914 in a motorcycle accident, and that was just the start of a series of problems that really changed Allensworth. What happened?
Mr. BUNCH: Allensworth, as a community, was really in an area where water was key. And when the land was acquired, they were promised that there would always be pumps, and there would always be the kind of level of water they needed. And that failed. And once the water started to go, that called into question of their ability to farm.
They also made a business of being a depot station, where the farmers from the local area would come to put their crops, because the Santa Fe railroad train would go through there. But the farmers complained that they had to deal with these black people, and ultimately, a spur was created to bypass - for the railroad to bypass Allensworth, that took some of the business away.
And then the notion was, Allensworth thought that maybe we could create a Tuskegee of the West, a school like Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a vocational school for blacks. That could be in Allensworth, and that would provide both an economic engine for the community, but also a real, practical purpose for this community. That failed. And then when the colonel was killed in - run down by a motorcycle in 1914, suddenly the community doesn't have the bearings it once had.
CHIDEYA: Let's listen to a little bit from one of the one-time residents, Ed Pope. He recently died, but here he is talking to filmmaker Pam Harris about the time right before World War II.
Mr. ED POPE (Prior Resident, Allensworth, California): We left Allensworth. That was in 1940. A lot of people were still here, and they just hung on, hung on, hung on. But when the war started - in 1941 - started, and jobs started to open up in the different cities, that's when everyone left. That was the last great days of Allensworth.
CHIDEYA: You can hear in his voice this heartbreak. What lessons are we meant to learn from the life cycle of Allensworth? Which is by some people called, the town that wouldn't die. I mean, it's now - still exists as a state historic park, but it's not what it was.
Mr. BUNCH: I think that in some ways, there's a lot to learn from Allensworth. First of all, Allensworth was a place that helped people believe, helped people find some positive thing to hold on to, when the rest of the world told them there was no possibility there.
And many of the people with family came out of Allensworth, as you heard in Ed Pope's voice, there was a sense of community, a sense of engagement, a sense of helping each other. But also, a sense that this was, in some ways, a special moment where the possibilities that were once there were now gone.
And so I think one of the powers of understanding Allensworth is that this is really a proactive attempt by an African-American community, not to simply disassociate itself from America, but to be a kind of beacon of hope, a beacon of possibility. And some ways, its greatest impact is that the people that once lived there became people who believed in education, believed in change, believed that they could make America better.
CHIDEYA: Lonnie, thank you so much.
Mr. BUNCH: It's my great pleasure.
CHIDEYA: Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joined us from the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. To see an excerpt from the film "Land of Promise: The story of Allensworth," go to our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.
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CHIDEYA: Now for more on Allensworth, we turn to one-time resident, Mrs. Alice Royal. She's the author of "Allensworth, the Freedom Colony: A California African American Township." Mrs. Royal, it's a delight to have you on the show.
Ms. ALICE ROYAL (Author, "Allensworth, the Freedom Colony: A California African American Township"): It is good to be here.
CHIDEYA: So you were born in Allensworth in 1923 in your grandparents'…
Ms. ROYAL: Correct.
CHIDEYA: In your grandparents' home?
Ms. ROYAL: Exactly. Mr. and Mrs. Alice and James Hackett.
CHIDEYA: What are some of the things you remember from being a little girl, and going around their house?
Ms. ROYAL: Well, I remember my grandmother, because I used to follow her everywhere. In the home, in her garden, and she raised all of her vegetables and her condiments for cooking. And then across the road, she had her cows and her chickens. I tried to help her collect the eggs, because the chickens knew her better than they knew me. So I just had to watch, and cautiously try to reach the eggs every day.
CHIDEYA: Or else you'd get a peck on the hand.
Ms. ROYAL: They were Rhode Island Red chickens, and of course, the eggs were brown, and were supposed to be the most nourishing. And then when the cow, I also tried to milk the cow, but I didn't do a very good job as an eight-year-old. And so I'd - most of the time, I just watched and helped my mother and my grandmother with the milk and the cream, and the churning in the home.
CHIDEYA: What do you remember about the other people in the town? Did people conquer their...
Ms. ROYAL: They were very loving, gracious people, because my grandparents were highly respected in the community. And then so many of the community members were friends. Some of them were church members and some of them were educators. Some of them were business people. And we were welcomed when went to the post office, we were welcomed when we went to the drug store, we were welcomed when we went to the other stores in the community. And of course, my aunt was a teacher in the school during my day, and so on special occasions, we had Taffy pulls in the Hackett home for all the children in the community. And of course, that was joy time as well.
CHIDEYA: Do you feel that the community was protected, at least at first, from some of the tensions that were going on around race in other parts of the country?
Ms. ROYAL: Very true. And so there was - I never knew of any struggles, or any of the kinds of things that went on in many city - times of the age. There was no policemen. Everything was quiet and peaceful and well-run.
CHIDEYA: How did you feel when Allensworth started to change because of the railroad issue, and then ultimately in the 1970s, becoming a state historic park? How did it make you feel that this town, which you describe as being so very vibrant, it lives on, but not in the form that it used to?
Ms. ROYAL: This is very true. One of the things that - even after leaving Allensworth, members of my family were in and out of Allensworth up to the Depression years, and up through the years where Allensworth was struggling. But there was always a gathering of the few pioneers, usually during May. Wherever they were, they wanted to come back to Allensworth and have a big picnic and a sharing of pioneer experiences.
CHIDEYA: How does it make you feel that this anniversary is being celebrated, this centennial?
Ms. ROYAL: I am blessed. I am blessed to carry on what I call a vibrant community. A community of former ex-slaves, former freed people that always had an upward vision. I call the Allensworth pioneers VIA people, people with vision, the intellect and the ability to carry out their dream. Their dream of an upward movement, to be freed people with their skills, with their abilities, with their education in a segregated world.
CHIDEYA: Well, Mrs. Royal, really appreciate this. Thank you.
Ms. ROYAL: And thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was Mrs. Alice Royal. She's a one-time resident of Allensworth, and author of "Allensworth, The Freedom Colony: A California African American Township." She joined me from the studios of KVPR in Fresno, California.
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CHIDEYA: And finally, we've got a gentleman with a completely different perspective on embracing Allensworth's history. Thomas Ward is a bike ride coordinator for the Colonel Allensworth Century and Fun Ride and owner of Crankin' Time Cycling. Thomas, thanks for coming in the studio.
Mr. THOMAS WARD (Bike Ride Coordinator, Colonel Allensworth Century and Fun Ride; Owner, Crankin' Time Cycling): Glad to be here. Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So tell us about this bike ride that you helped organized.
Mr. WARD: Yes. I am working with the Friends of Allensworth, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping expose people to Colonel Allensworth State Park, and I've decided to do it along the lines of promoting with a bike ride, have an essential event for people to ride and also learn about the park.
CHIDEYA: How did you learn about it?
Mr. WARD: I learned about the park as a musician. I was playing there, and I had to leave, and I wanted to stay. And I couldn't stay, and I decided to come back on my own. And when I did, I decided I wanted to promote it for other people to see as well.
CHIDEYA: So when you organize a ride like this that raises money for Allensworth, what are you really raising money to do? What do you want to see happen with the town?
Mr. WARD: Well, they have a non-profit organization through the California State Parks, but they also have a sub-division, which is the Friends of Allensworth. And those people are the ones that actually provide tourists with people dressed in period clothing, I guess, they call them docents. And I'm inspired to try to help the docents. You know, a lot of them come from miles around and they spend their own money to, you know, give people like me a tour. And I would like to give some money to them.
CHIDEYA: You guys have set up, you know, a very comprehensive event with three different rides for people of different abilities. You know, one is a beginner, no hills, and then you go on from there. Tell me - describe the hard-core ride to me, the one that the tough cyclists will do.
Mr. WARD: The hard-core hill is called the Granite Wall. That's a hundred-mile ride, a little over a hundred miles. It's a little over 3,000 feet total climbing.
CHIDEYA: Why does it make you excited to do this kind of work?
Mr. WARD: I feel very strongly about letting our people, African-Americans, know about history that they can walk into and take a look at, and see for themselves what was done, you know, years ago. In this case, you know, a hundred years ago. These were people that had different obstacles to deal with in their time, and they were still able to band together, organize both financially and with labor and build a town. And when you walk there and you see that, it just puts a chill over you, that these people said, we have class, we have desires, we want to raise our children safely, we want to educate ourselves, and this is what we tried to do.
CHIDEYA: Thomas, thank you.
Mr. WARD: You're welcome.
CHIDEYA: That was Thomas Ward, the bike ride coordinator for the second annual Allensworth Century and Fun Ride centennial celebration.