On April 7th, 1842, Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky, to parents Levi and Phyllis Allensworth; Phyllis and Levi produced thirteen children, but like many enslaved families a number of their children were sold away, the other either ran away or brought their freedom. Allen was the youngest of his siblings and was given to Thomas, the son of Bett and A.P. Starbird as his personal slave; A.P. Starbird was the owner of Phyllis Allensworth. When Thomas began his schooling he would secretly teach Allen how to read, it was discovered that Allen was reading and he was immediately sent to live with a woman who was a Quaker named Mrs. Talbot, the irony was Mrs. Talbot continued to teach Allen how to read and write. Bett Starbird learned that Allen's education was continuing under the care of Mrs. Talbot, she took him back before sending him to live with her brother on a plantation in Henderson, Kentucky. Allen was under the ownership of Mr. Smith who was set on preventing him from learning anything more than what he already knew; he was also assigned as a house slave and was often punished for attempting to read, these events led him to his first attempt at escaping slavery, which was unsuccessful.
After a few failed attempts at escaping slavery, Allen was eventually sold to a man named Fred Scruggs in Jefferson, Louisiana, where he became a jockey racing the horses owned by Fred Scruggs; because Allen could read and was pretty good at racing horses he was seen as valuable to Scruggs. Allen still longed for his freedom. Around 1862, Allen encountered a group of soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, he expressed his longing for freedom, the soldiers invited him to join the Hospital Corps associated with them and he accepted the invitation. As the regiment was leaving Louisville they gave Allen some of their clothing to hide from his slave master, he also covered his face with mud altering his look allowing him to slip past his master gaining his freedom. With his newfound freedom, Allen continued with the Hospital Corps as a nursing aide before enlisting with the US Navy. While in the Navy, Allen not only received his first payment as a free man he served on the gunboats Queen City and Tawah and was promoted to the Captain's Stewart and Clerk.
After serving two years on the Queen City and Tawah Allen moved back to Kentucky, he then moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he reunited with his brother William, the two opened two restaurants before they eventually sold the restaurants. Allen moved back to Louisville and enrolled into the Ely Normal School to continue his education, he later began teaching children at a Freedmen’s Bureau school before enrolling into the Nashville Institute which was later named Roger Williams University. Allen did not graduate but he was eventually given an honorary Masters of Arts from Roger Williams University. His next step was studying theology in Tennessee in 1870, in 1871 he was ordained as a Baptist Preacher after becoming a regular attendee of the Fifth Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and began preaching in Franklin, Tennessee. Allen became a teacher in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1875, he also became a financial agent for the General Association of the Colored Baptists in Kentucky. Allen, along with other black teachers and preachers in Kentucky joined together to found The State University which is now the Simmons College of Kentucky, a historically black college. Allen not only helped to found the university but he also helped to determine the salary of the university’s president at the time and served on the board of trustees.
His next accomplishment was becoming the Pastor of the Harney Street Baptist Church where he helped to increase the size of the congregation so much that a new building needed to be built and the church was renamed to the Centennial Baptist Church. Allen married a woman named Josephine Leavell in 1877, she was a well-known piano and organ teacher; the couple produced two children. Allen moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky to preach and he also became a public speaker, he was appointed the Sunday School Missionary for the state of Kentucky, as well as, the Sunday School Superintendent. Allen Allensworth was accomplishing many things and he added to his resume by serving as the state of Kentucky’s only black delegate for the Republicans National Convention in 1880 and 1884. In 1886, Allen was appointed by the northern and southern politicians as the Chaplin for the U.S. Army, his appointment was confirmed by the Senate and the president of the United States of America. He was one of the few black Chaplins in the U.S. Army and was assigned as Chaplin for the Buffalo Soldiers and was able to serve as Chaplin as far west as the state of Montana. Allen authored two educational manuals Outline of Course of Study, and The Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, N.M., manuals that became a part of the regular curriculum for the U.S. Army. Allen retired from the U.S. Army in 1906 as the first black person to become a lieutenant colonel.
In 1908, Allen Allensworth realized his dream of creating an all-black self-sufficient black community when he established the city of Allensworth, California, in Tulare County. Allensworth, California was said to be Allen's "Tuskegee of the West", as he and Booker T. Washington were both admirers of each other. Allensworth grew from a small community to a successful city with homes, streets laid out, public buildings, a church, an orchestra, a voting precinct, the schools even became a part of the Tulare County school system. The city of Allensworth faced several difficulties working to remain a self-sufficient black-owned city, the Santa Fe Railroad which brought business to the city was moved to another city negatively impacting the economy of the city. On September 14th, 1914, Allen Allensworth was hit by a motorcycle and unfortunately killed. The site of the town of Allensworth, California was preserved by the state of California and the California African-American Museum. The Allen Allensworth State Historic Park was created to commemorate the only all-black city in California to be founded and financed entirely by black people, led by the vision of Allen Allensworth. To the man who began life as a slave, escaped slavery, became a pastor, educator, U.S. Army Chaplin, author, the first black lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army, and established his own all-black city in California, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
J. A. Ward
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