At Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park (SHP), Juneteenth—the oldest-known celebration of the ending of American slavery—was honored this morning, Friday, June 19, 2020, via a virtual tour of historical sites.
It was in 1865 on June 19 that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now free. This was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had become official on Jan. 1, 1863, however, being deep in Confederate territory, the residents of Texas had not yet heard the news. In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, and since then, nearly half of the states recognize the holiday.
Colonel Allensworth SHP celebrated Juneteenth with a virtual tour on Friday morning, June 19, to honor the important holiday, as well as pay tribute to the only town in California founded, financed and governed by African Americans. The township of Allensworth was founded in August 1908 by Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth and several other prominent African American businessmen. Allensworth was born a slave in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 7, 1842. In the spring of 1854, he was sold “down river” for having attempted to learn to read and write, something blacks were prohibited by law from doing in the south.
During the Civil War, Allensworth fled behind the Union lines and escaped to freedom. In April 1863 he joined the United States Navy and rose from the ranks to petty officer first class. He was honorably discharged on April 4, 1865, after which time he worked in the commissary of the Mount City Navy Yard. In 1867, he and his brother opened two restaurants in St. Louis, which were tremendously successful, but Allensworth “got religion,” sold the restaurants and joined the Baptist Church. He was ordained a minister on April 9, 1871, and thereafter held several pastorates in Kentucky and Ohio. Later in 1886, he was appointed chaplain of the 24th Infantry with the rank of Captain by the President of the United States. He retired in 1906 as the highest-ranking African American officer in the army’s history at that point.
After his retirement, he met with William Payne and several other men to found an all-Black community—that town became a reality on Aug. 3, 1908. The town grew rapidly at first, but because of a serious lack of a dependable water supply and the death of the Colonel in 1914 due to a motorcycle accident, the town’s future was anything but certain. By 1918, the township was in decline and people were moving to the Bay Area and Los Angeles to resettle.
The “town that refused to die” became a California State Historic Park in 1973. It is currently on the National Register of Historic places as a historic district and a California State Historic Landmark.
The park recently received $572,000 in Proposition 68 funds to begin design of a new visitor center building, exhibits and associated site improvements.
If you plan to visit the park, visit the park webpage to learn about new COVID-19 visitor guidelines. Virtually, you can visit the park via a photographic virtual tour of Allensworth’s buildings and on the Smithsonian Learning Lab.