Alameda Family Settled in Historic Black Town
Alameda Family Settled in Historic Black Town
Eric J. Kos
Alameda resident Alexander Mastroianni recently visited Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in Tulare County and his daughter came across a reference to an Alameda family on one of the plaques there. The state park preserves the site of Allensworth, the only California town founded, financed and governed by African Americans.
Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth founded his eponymous town in 1908 with the help of Professor William Payne, minister William Peck, miner John W. Palmer and Harry A. Mitchell, a real estate agent. Their combined efforts were designed to improve the economic and social status of African Americans.
Lt. Col. Allensworth (April 7, 1842 – Sept. 14, 1914) enlisted in the Union Army after escaping slavery in Kentucky and became the first African American to attain the rank of Lt. Colonel. The young man escaped enslavement at a farm near Louisville after encountering men of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment camped nearby. He enlisted in the Hospital Corps, and while wearing a disguise, marched past his former master on his way to the front lines, according to Wikipedia.
He served as a civilian nursing aid for a time before enlisting in the U.S. Navy, earning his first pay as a free man. Promotion soon followed and Allensworth served as captain’s steward and clerk aboard two famed river gunboats, the Queen City and the Tawah.
After the war he served as a Baptist minister and educator, later appointed a U.S. Army chaplain. Over the years he founded several churches and formed a friendship with Booker T. Washington. Inspired by the Tuskegee Institute and its associated town, Allensworth set out to establish the “Tuskegee of the West.”
The 800-acre site 45 miles north of Bakersfield had fertile soil, adequate water and sat near the railroad. The residents were primarily craftspeople, artisans, businessmen, farmers, ranchers and retired military. By 1914 the assessed value of the town was estimated at $112,000. The community raised dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys and Belgian hares alongside acres of cultivated alfalfa, wheat, sugar beet and cotton.
The Allensworth Progressive Association led the community in a council form of government where both men and women held important roles. Businesses included a bakery, drugstore, livery stable, barbershop and a machine shop along with public buildings including a church, school and library. There was also a general store and post office and the Allensworth Hotel that had eight guestrooms.
Wikipedia mentions several civic organizations served the community including: “the Campfire Girls, the Owl Club, the Girls’ Glee Club, and the Children’s Savings Association, for the town’s younger residents, while adults participated in the Sewing Circle, the Whist Club, the Debating Society, and the Theater Club.”
The town contained multiple residences, one of which, the 1910 Hackett home, was contructed by Alameda resident James Hackett, his son Arthur, and Abraham Stockett. According to the plaque the Mastroiannis found, “the remaining family members continued to live in Alameda, Ca.”
The house first served as a school for the Allensworth community, and then a vacation home for the Hackett family. In 1916 James and Alice Hackett, their son Paul, and their three youngest daughters moved to Allensworth and took up residence.
“The family kept their place in Alameda,” reads the plaque. “But entered fully into the communi¬ty life at Allensworth. They grew extensive gardens and kept chickens, a horse and a cow.”
The Hacketts also operated a business out of the barn that sold building materials and other goods. In 1932, the house and the adjoining Stockett home were destroyed in a fire. I first learned about the Hackett family in a copy of the San Franscisco Call covering a citywide Alameda spelling bee held Dec. 15, 1900 (“A Story for Black History Month,” Feb. 26, 2015). Sarah Hackett won that spelling bee, defeating more than 80 other school children. Described as “a bright colored girl” she beat the best spellers from Alameda’s four elementary schools in a 30-minute “crossfire of words.” According to the article, Sarah was the daughter of James Hackett, a gardener and janitor for the Methodist Church.
By 1914 the town of Allensworth had run into problems with securing clean water. Enough wells had been drilled to drain the water table leaving the supply tainted with alkalai salts. This, combined with the shocking death of Lt. Col. Allensworth helped spell the end of the tiny community.
While heading to preach at a church in Monrovia, Calif., and having just stepped off the street car, the 72-year-old community paragon was struck by a reckless motorcyclist. He died shortly after. A grand military funeral was held in Los Angeles in his honor and services were held throughout the state and the nation.
The Allensworth community was hit hard. By 1920, the leaders had taken opportunities elsewhere. Through the Great Depression the population continued to decline leaving the community an impoverished area without clean water.
In 1968 former Allensworth resident Cornelius “Ed” Pope, a draftsman and planner for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, wrote a proposal to restore the settlement. In 1974, the park was formally established on 240 acres.
Eric J. Kos is a historian who has contributed to several titles including Lost San Francisco and Bay Farm Island: A Hidden History of Alameda