Allensworth: A Town Built by and for African Americans

by Chris Pattillo, FASLA

Home of Colonel Allensworth
Home of Colonel Allensworth on Sojourna Avenue and Dunbar Road, February 2015. / image: Chris Pattillo

The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 12th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document historic Black landscapes. Black people have built and shaped the American landscape in immeasurable ways. Documenting these histories and spaces will expand our understanding of America’s past and future.

Allensworth, HALS CA-68

In 2015 while returning home from a vacation in Tucson, Arizona, I decided to visit Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in Tulare County, California. I learned about this unique historic park from the database of cultural landscapes that the Northern California HALS Chapter maintains. It is a resource I check regularly when traveling to find interesting places to explore.

We arrived at the state park campground late, so I waited until morning to explore the site, when everything was shrouded in fog. Allensworth State Park is what remains of what was once a thriving town built by and for African Americans. It was founded by five men—Allen Allensworth, a former slave, Union Army nurse, Baptist Minister, lecturer, and politician; William Payne, a school teacher; William Peck, an American Methodist Episcopal Church minister; J.W. Palmer, a Nevada miner; and Harvey Mitchel, a realtor from Los Angeles. They filed plans for a new township on August 3, 1908.

Overview of the agrarian setting for the town of Allensworth, February 2015. / image: Chris Pattillo

African American families then started moving to Allensworth, building homes and businesses to form the town. According to Cate Bainton, who researched and wrote a HALS short format historical report for the site, “By 1914 there was a library, school house, post office, voting precinct and judicial district.”

Community library in Allensworth, February 2015. / image: Chris Pattillo

Today, the 600-acre state park site contains twenty-one historic buildings in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Most have been rehabilitated and furnished with period furnishings and accoutrements, and each business or home has a plaque explaining the purpose of the building, who built it, and where they were from originally. For example, the Milner Barbershop tells this story, “Frank Milner arrived in Allensworth from the Bay Area in 1911 and set up his first barbershop in a small frame house just west of this location. In 1914, with volunteers from the community, he constructed a concrete block structure similar to the reconstructed building on this site. Milner’s Barbershop played an important part in early town life.”

Interior photo of the Milner Barbershop, February 2015. / image: Chris Pattillo

The community continued to expand and thrive for a time but by the 1940s many families and businesses had left for a variety of reasons. California State Parks acquired the property and Allensworth Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park brochure site plan showing the location and layout of the town. / image: California State Parks, 2007

Cate’s HALS historical report describes the site as, “an agrarian one characterized by its flatness, lack of adornment, and scarcity of trees. Streets are on a north-south and east-west grid, except where the grid is intersected at a diagonal by a railroad tracks and State Highway 43.” The original township incorporated a buffer of agricultural land and an area set aside for a future African American vocational school.

While somewhat remote, this significant site is well worth a visit to experience a unique aspect of African American life.

The school house anchored the corner at Sojourna Avenue and Dunbar Road, February 2015. / image: Chris Pattillo

Chris Pattillo, FASLA, founded the Northern California Chapter of HALS in 2003 along with Cathy Garrett, ASLA, PGAdesign, and Betsy Flack, ASLA. She initiated the idea for the HALS Challenge in 2009 and has prepared several sets of HALS documentation.

For more information on the 2021 HALS Challenge, Historic Black Landscapes, please see this previous post. Each month between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic black landscapes that have already been documented for HALS, like Allensworth, highlighted here, and the Smokey Hollow Community, featured last month. If you missed last month’s HALS Challenge webinar on Acknowledging Historic Black Landscapes with Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, NYCOBA-NOMA, Andrea Roberts, Ph.D., Joseph Disponzio, Ph.D., and Christopher Stevens, ASLA, the recording is now available.

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