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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — July 2023: Josephine Leavell Allensworth

Born in 1855 in Trenton, Kentucky, Josephine Leavell was an accomplished pianist, organist and music teacher. She attended Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee where she met prominent Baptist minister, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth, the first African American to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. The couple married in 1877. They had two daughters, Eva and Nella.

Upon Rev. Allenwsorth’s retirement from the military in 1906, the family settled in Los Angeles, California. During that time, they became inspired by the idea of establishing a self-sufficient, all-Black California community where African Americans could live free of the racial discrimination that pervaded post-Reconstruction America. Their dream was to build a community where Black people might live and create “sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.”

On June 30, 1908, the Allensworths and their business partner Professor William Alexander Payne established the California Colony and Home Promoting Association. The Association purchased 20 acres of land from the Pacific Farming Company with the goal of establishing a town for Black soldiers. The land, situated in Tulare County, about 40 miles north of Bakersfield, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, was divided into individual parcels, forming “a colony of orderly and industrious African Americans who could control their own destiny.”

Allensworth's reputation drew people from all over the country, causing some to buy property sight-unseen in order to support the efforts. California's first African American school district was established there in 1910. Soontherafter, residents elected the first African-American Justice of the Peace in post-Mexican California. By 1914, the Allensworth community had grown to 900 acres of deeded land.

An activist and leader in her own right, Josephine founded the town’s Women’s Improvement League, sat on the school board, and donated the property for the Mary Dickinson Memorial Library, the town’s public library which was named for her mother.

Allensworth’s prosperity peaked in 1925, after which time the lack of water available for irrigation began to plague the town. The water needed for irrigation was never supplied in the amount promised by the Pacific Farming Company, the land development firm that handled the original purchase. As a result, town leaders became engrossed in lengthy and expensive legal battles with the company, expending scarce financial resources on a battle they would not win.

By 1930 the town’s population had dropped below 300 people, as residents and nearby farmers began to leave in search of other employment. The deficient water supply would no longer sustain the town’s agricultural and ranching enterprises. By 1966, the town was scheduled for demolition when arsenic was found in the water supply. The state of California eventually stepped in and preserved the land and the buildings, designating the area as the “Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.”

To this day, Allensworth remains the only California community to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans. One historian described Allensworth as “a planned experiment in civic power that had significant impact around the state and meaning for all…Just as the town touched diverse peoples and places around California, today Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park attracts a wide array of visitors of all ethnic groups—drawn to this symbol of the universal dream of freedom.”

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