Allen Allensworth was born into slavery on April 7, 1842, in Louisville, Kentucky, he was the youngest of thirteen children of Phyllis and Levi Allensworth. Over the years the Allensworth family was scattered around the United States. Allensworth was sold to several different master, finally ending up New Orleans and purchase by Fred Scruggs, a jockey in Jefferson, Louisiana.
In the early 1861 Allensworth had hoped to see his mother again, after learning that her last master, a Rev. Bayliss had freed her after she cared for his dying wife. He found that she has recently gone to New Orleans with a Union man to look for her sons. Waiting for his mother’s return, Allensworth was reunited with one of his sisters Mary Jane, who had married and had a son. She purchase her freedom in 1849.
The Civil War loomed, and while working nearby on a farm where Scruggs’ deputy had placed him, Allensworth met soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union Unit encamped near Louisville. When he told the soldiers of wanting his freedom and reunite with his family, they invited him to join the Hospital Corps. Allensworth dressed in an old uniform, plastered mud over his face. In disguise, he marched with the unit past his master through Louisville and off to war.
After Allensworth bold escape from bondage, he served as a civilian nursing aide with the 44th Infantry’s Illinois, also serving in the Nashville Campaign. About a year later in 1863, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he earned his first pay as a free man. He was soon promoted to Captain’s steward and clerk on the civil war gunboat U.S.S. Tawah when it was destroyed in an engagement with Confederate batteries at Johnsonville, Tennessee.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy, Allensworth moved to Kentucky at find work. In 1868 he joined his brother William in St. Louis, where they operated two restaurants. Within a short time Allensworth left the restaurant business and taught at schools for the freedmen and their children, one operated by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Allensworth became involved with the Baptist Church in Louisville. He was ordained in 1871, later he went on to study theology in Tennessee. During this time he also served as preacher in Franklin, Tennessee, south of Nashville.
In 1877 Allensworth married Josephine Leavell (1855–1938), also a native of Kentucky; they had met while studying at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee. She was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. They had two daughters together, Eva and Nella.
The year of his marriage, Allensworth invited his mother Phyllis to live with him and Josephine. They had several months together before she died in 1878 at the age of 96.
In 1886, when he was 44, Allensworth gained support by both southern and northern politicians for appointment as a chaplain in the US Army; his appointment was confirmed by the Senate, as necessary at the time, and approved by the president. He was one of the few black chaplains in the US Army and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. His family accompanied him on assignments in the West, ranging from Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory to Fort Supply, Indian Territory and Fort Harrison, near Helena Montana. His wife played organ in the fort chapels.
On April 7, 1906, after twenty years of service, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel making him the first African American officer to receive this rank.
In 1908 an retired Chaplain Allensworth and four other black men formed the all-black town called Allensworth in Tulare County, California. Where African Americans could live free of the racial discrimination that pervaded post-Reconstruction America. His dream was to build a community where black people might live and create “sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.”
The black settlers of Allensworth built homes, laid out streets, and put up public buildings. They established a church, and organized an orchestra, a glee club, and a brass band.
The Allensworth colony became a member of the county school district and the regional library system and a voting precinct. Residents elected the first African-American Justice of the Peace in post-Mexican California. In 1914, the “California Eagles” reported that the Allensworth community consisted of 900 acres (360 ha) of deeded land worth more than U.S $112,500.
Allensworth soon became a town, not just a colony. Among the social and educational organizations that flourished during its golden age were the Campfire Girls, the Owl Club, the Girls’ Glee Club, and the Children’s Savings Association, for the town’s younger residents, while adults participated in the Sewing Circle, the Whist Club, the Debating Society, and the Theater Club.
The Girls’ Glee Club was modeled after the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who had toured internationally. They were the community’s pride and joy. All the streets in the town were named after notable African Americans and/or white abolitionists, such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The dry and dusty soil made farming difficult. The drinking water became contaminated by toxins as the water level fell. The year 1913 also brought a number of setbacks to the town. First, much of the town’s economic base was lost when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its rail stop from Allensworth to Alpaugh.
Six years later, in September of 1914, during a trip to Monrovia, California, Colonel Allensworth was crossing a Los Angeles street when he was struck and killed by a motorcycle. The site of the former town is now preserved as Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.