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Little town on the prairie

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 8/1/2012, 5 p.m.

You've heard of them. Vin Rhames starred in a movie about one. Beverly Jenkins wrote about a few in her early books. They are the "Colored Townships"--towns founded and settled by African Americans after the Civil War, that were a kind of self-segregation, independent-living answer to the oppression of the times.

Sure there was Rosewood in Florida and Nicodemus in Kansas, but did you know there's a Black township in California?

Founded in 1908, Allensworth was the first and only town in California founded, financed and governed by Black Americans. It is now a state historic park and is located about 30 miles north of Bakersfield in Tulare County.

Although basically abandoned following a failing water supply, a post-World War I economic slump and continuous efforts to destroy it by neighboring White towns, many of the Allensworth's historic buildings have been preserved and restored through the efforts of Cornelius Pope, an African American who, worked for the Department of State Parks and Recreation in the 1970s and brought Allensworth to the attention of his employer.

Today, the state works in cooperation with the Friends of Allensworth, a nonprofit organization made up of a group of dedicated individuals--including some former residents and their heirs--to preserve the town.

"We have approximately six families, descendants of original Allensworth settlers, that help us with special events," said Thomas Stratton, president of the Friends of Allensworth.

"Our function really, as it is now, is to put on events," he added. "We have five special events a year that include interpretation, education and outreach."

During special events, state rangers and docents, some dressed in period costumes, give tours of the park, which includes some 20 buildings. You can even take a self-guided cell-phone tour, punching in different extensions to learn the story of the town and its namesake and co-founder as you meander down the dusty roads.

Col. Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in Louisville, Ky., in 1842. He played "school" with the master's son and learned to read and write, but at 12 he was caught breaking the law that prohibited the education of slaves and was sent away to another owner.

At 20, he ran away and joined the Union Army, becoming a chief petty officer, and when the war ended, he got the education he wanted, earning a doctorate in theology; then he married and fathered two daughters. He served as chaplain to the 24th Infantry, one of the Army's four African American regiments.

Allensworth retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1906, and was the first African American to attain such a high rank in the U.S. Army. He became a lecturer, promoting Booker T. Washington's philosophy of African American self-reliance. After settling in Los Angeles, he and other like-minded individuals formed the California Colonization and Home Promotion Association in 1908 and purchased 800 acres along the Santa Fe rail line.

Soon people from all over the country, who knew the name and reputation of Col. Allensworth, came to populate the town and find a better life free from discrimination. The town became a success and even the Los Angeles Times wrote about it in an article titled, "An Ideal Negro Settlement."