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Black history at risk?

Backers of a state park, once a town founded by a former slave and Civil War veteran, say a planned dairy operation would dishonor African Americans.

December 06, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

VISALIA, CALIF. — In 1908, a former slave and retired Army chaplain named Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth realized his life's dream: a town started and run entirely by African Americans.

Long ago shuttered, the original Allensworth now is a state historic park, cherished by families and church groups who see it as a hardscrabble monument to California's black history.

But they fear that despite the state's protection, the settlement named after the charismatic military man is in peril. A 12,000-cow dairy operation is proposed for property just across the tracks, angering park supporters who say foul odors and flies will plague the remote spot and dishonor a noble experiment in self-determination.

"If it weren't a black historic site, it wouldn't have to endure these kinds of attacks," said Victor Carter, a 55-year-old African American accountant from Bakersfield who noted that previous proposals had been fended off -- for a turkey farm and a dump for restaurant grease.

The owner of the 2,000 acres in the vast rolling plain of the San Joaquin Valley, Sam Etchegaray, is a Basque farmer who immigrated to the United States from France in 1963. He and his sons have said in local hearings that, far from dishonoring the legacy of Allensworth, the dairy operation would create 60 jobs and give a $20-million boost to the local economy, ushering impoverished minorities into the middle class.

On Tuesday, before a crowd of more than 100 mostly African American advocates who trooped in from as far as Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Tulare County supervisors voted to put off a decision for at least two weeks to research several technical issues that had been raised by an attorney for a San Francisco-based public-interest law firm.

They made no statement on whether they supported a proposal by state parks officials -- also aired Tuesday -- to negotiate with Etchegaray for his development rights.

In the end, though, some Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park supporters in the crowd were encouraged by supervisors' reluctance to vote on the spot for yet another dairy operation in a job-hungry, rural area where cows slightly outnumber residents and where more milk is produced than in any other U.S. county.

"I'm more hopeful than when I came through that door this morning," said Beverly Blake, who drove about 200 miles from Los Angeles.

In the years just after its founding, Allensworth drew more than 300 families, fervent believers in self-reliance who built a hotel, a general store, a school, a church, and a society as formal as any of the day's urban, middle-class areas. Adults were referred to as Mr., Mrs. or Miss. Some of the colonel's colleagues kept their military titles, even down to the relatively humdrum "Sergeant."

Stories still are told about Mrs. Josephine Hackett, an Allensworth mother who would not permit her daughter to go out in public wearing unironed hair ribbons.

Allensworth, who as a slave was sold in retaliation for learning to read, sneaked into a Union encampment during the Civil War and ended up retiring from the Army with the highest rank ever earned by a black man at that point. Along the way, he became a Baptist minister, a lecturer and a visionary who promised to name a planned man-made lake in his new town after his friend, Booker T. Washington.

The lake never came to pass. Allensworth died in an accident in 1914. His town hit hard times when the railroad depot was moved to nearby Alpaugh -- a decision some saw as a racist slap in the face but others attributed to Allensworth's increasingly dire water shortages. His plan for a California version of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute also failed to catch on, either in the Legislature or in the black community.

"This town wasn't completely embraced by the African American community at the time," said Ken Kramasz, the park ranger who oversees Allensworth. "A lot of people didn't want to open the door to more segregation."

In an area that had been alfalfa fields, only three of the town's original buildings remain. Nineteen have been reconstructed, with architects drawing from plans and photographs of the day.

With white patches of alkali soil showing through the scrub outside, the colonel's prefabricated frame house reflects his refined sensibilities. A portrait of the young Ludwig van Beethoven hangs near the piano in the parlor, and the mahogany-trimmed walls are painted forest green.

"There was a glee club and a debate society and the first free-circulation library in Tulare County," Kramasz said. "There was quite a cultured society here."

Today, visitors trickle in, totaling 1,000 or more during four or five celebrations that are held annually.

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