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The rise and fall of a black utopia

October 27, 2008|Peter H. King | King is a Times staff writer.

FROM ALLENSWORTH, CALIF. — From outside her house in this beaten-down little town in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Nettie Morrison, Allensworth's unofficial mayor, can look up the road a few hundred yards and see where it all so grandly began -- the birthplace of one of the more audacious California dreams.

A century ago, it was on this flat, barren piece of California that Col. Allen Allensworth, a former slave and retired Army chaplain, came to launch a utopia: a colony of, by and for black Americans.

The town that bore his name, Allensworth declared, would provide sanctuary for "the masses who are without opportunity and without hope," a refuge from the Jim Crow laws and lynchings of the South. It also would be a place, the colonel told the hundred settlers gathered for the town's dedication, where they could prove their mettle:

"A large number of our fellow countrymen have been taught for generations that the Negro is incapable of the highest development of citizenship," he said that day. "This they believe and will continue to think until we show them they are mistaken. . . . We must do as they did -- settle upon the bare desert and cause it to bloom like a rose."

The colony prospered for half a dozen years or so and then all but withered away. Still, Morrison said the other day, embarking on an informal tour of the town, "it's a beautiful history. To see it was a self-governing community, founded by blacks -- it just goes to show you, as they say today, yes we can."

A 73-year-old widow and mother of five, Morrison moved here more than 30 years ago, shortly after the remains of the original colony were preserved as a 240-acre state park. At the time, she recalled, Allensworth was inhabited by many black families. A few had ties to the original pioneers, but most were remnants of a second wave of 30,000 to 40,000 migrants who poured into California in the 1940s to pick cotton and build a better life in the West -- the "Black Okies," they were called.

One by one, the blacks died off or moved away, and now most of Morrison's neighbors in the town of 500 are immigrant farmworkers from Mexico.

"I'm one of the last," she said, "one of the last."

On her dinner table was an absentee ballot filled out and ready to mail. Three weeks before the election she already had cast her vote for Barack Obama: "This is history in the making, and everybody who can should take part."

She seemed less interested in talking about politics, however, than about her town. While historic Allensworth has been lovingly restored and re-created in the state park, the unincorporated town that sits on its southern border presents quite another story.

There is no commercial enterprise in town, no mini-mart, no gas station, no bank. To shop for groceries requires a drive to larger farm towns five or 10 miles away. Some roads are paved. Others are not. A few houses are well-maintained, but many are blighted, burned. Abandoned lots are filled with junk -- rusted out cars, farm implements and trailer houses -- and taggers have worked the town hard. Feral cats and uncollared dogs roam the streets and fields.

In Morrison's mind, the present condition of Allensworth -- the town, not the park -- mocks the pioneer vision of a refined, bucolic community in the alkali of the south valley: "One of the things I find depressing about the community is the fact that no one has stepped up to the plate to try and keep the colonel's dream alive.

"Most of the people out here, well, none of them are wealthy, OK? But there are some people of the black race, African American, whatever you want to call it, that have [the means to help.] Why don't they try to preserve the history?"

The park is not enough? she was asked.

"Oh, puh-leeze" was her only response.

There have been a few improvements since she arrived -- a small Christian church, where every Sunday 10 or 15 worshipers attend services; an elementary school, expanded to accommodate 103 students (one black); and a one-room community center. These adornments have all required uphill campaigns by committed residents. In recent years, townspeople have also battled proposals to place mega-dairies and turkey farms and a grease depository at Allensworth's borders.

The park, by contrast, offers a well-tended oasis. A few original buildings -- Col. Allensworth's bungalow among them -- have been restored. Others are replicas, re-created in accordance with the lone panoramic photograph of the colony still in existence. Spread across the grounds for visitors to tour are replicas of the hotel, the Baptist church, a few stores, an experimental farm and several houses.

Why did it fail?

"There was no single event that led to the demise of the colony," said Steven Ptomey, a historical interpreter at the park. "It was a series of events, spaced closely together."

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