By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2017 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Destiny is defined as “the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person in the future” and is also defined as “the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future.” For many people living in the United States prior to 1865, destiny was shackled in chains and consigned to chattel servitude. Bondage was the only destiny that these people realistically foresaw for themselves. However, history has shown that sometimes what appears to be an immutable destiny is not necessarily fixed in the cosmos. In the classic movie Casablanca when Victor Laszlo was taken into custody by the police and was being led away to be imprisoned, Rick Blaine said to Laszlo, “It seems that destiny has taken a hand.” For some who were victims of what was euphemistically called the peculiar institution, destiny did take a hand. One such person is Allen Allensworth, and because destiny took a hand on behalf of Allensworth, he was able to make important contributions to American society. As one person wrote about Allensworth, “Born into slavery and sold many times to different owners, the future looked bleak for the young Allen. But life had some specific plans for the gutsy, hard-working, and brave (Allensworth).”
Allen Allensworth was born in Louisville, Kentucky on April 7, 1842 to Phyllis and Levi Allensworth. He was the youngest of 13 children, and as the child of a slave, Allen became a slave from the moment of his birth. When Allensworth was a child, he was assigned to his owner’s son, who started to teach Allensworth to read even though this was illegal. After this was discovered, Allensworth was placed with another family, who were Quakers. This family continued to allow Allensworth to learn how to read, and when his previous owner learned of this, Allensworth was sold to a plantation in Henderson, Kentucky over 100 miles down the Ohio River. His new owner was careful to prevent Allensworth from becoming educated, and Allensworth was whipped if he tried to do so. The cruel treatment that Allensworth received from this owner motivated him to try to escape, which he attempted twice without success. After the second attempt, Allensworth was sold again and eventually came to be owned by a man named Fred Scruggs in Jefferson, Louisiana. Scruggs owned race horses, and he trained young Allensworth to exercise the horses and also as a jockey.
Early during the Civil War Scruggs took his horses and Allensworth to Louisville for some races. During their stay in Louisville Allensworth came in contact with men of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and he asked them to help him escape. This was accomplished when the men of the regiment let Allensworth wear some of their clothing and march away with them. Allensworth reputedly covered his face with dried mud to make his skin appear more pale. After his escape Allensworth served for some time as a nursing aide, but in 1863 he joined the navy and served for the remainder of the Civil War as a steward and a clerk on gunboats.
After the war Allensworth was reunited with members of his family. Beginning in 1868 he and his brother operated two restaurants, which they later sold at a profit. Allen used the money from the sale of the restaurants to further his education. He also became involved with a Baptist church in Louisville and in 1871 was ordained a preacher. He later attended Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee to study theology. It was there that he met his wife, Josephine Leavell, who was a pianist, organist, and music teacher. They were married in 1877, and they went on to have two daughters. Allensworth also studied public speaking in Philadelphia. With his background in theology and speaking, Allensworth became well known as a preacher and lecturer. In addition, he devoted himself to educating others because of his ardent belief that knowledge was the key to blacks becoming successful in society.
By 1880 Allensworth had become prominent as a minister and educator, and in 1882 a black soldier informed Allensworth of a problem in the U.S. Army, which this soldier thought Allensworth could help alleviate. Although there were black units in the army, these units did not have black chaplains. The soldier urged Allensworth to fill this void, because he felt that Allensworth’s background as a minister and educator made him an ideal candidate. After much perseverance Allensworth, at the age of 44, was finally appointed in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland to be chaplain of the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was one of the units in the Buffalo Soldiers. Allensworth served in this capacity for 20 years and retired from this position in 1906. By the time he retired from the army Allensworth had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, the first African-American to attain this rank.
During his time as chaplain, Allensworth’s wife and daughters traveled with him to the various places where he was stationed, which included Fort Apache in Arizona, Camp Reynolds in California, and Fort Missoula in Montana. While Allensworth was stationed at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, he drew on his background and experience as an educator to design and implement a program for the teaching of soldiers and their children. This innovative program entailed a course of study in which students were separated into different grade levels based on age. This was of particular importance for the children, because Allensworth’s course of study was designed so that children who left the post and entered civilian schools could be assimilated seamlessly into the grades of their respective ages and continue their education. Allensworth codified his program in a booklet titled Outline of Course of Study, and the Rules Governing Post Schools of Ft. Bayard, N.M. Allensworth’s education program was so successful that it was adapted for use throughout the army, and his development of this program of age-graded education was a seminal contribution to the educational system in the U.S.
After Allensworth retired from the army, he undertook the most ambitious venture of his life. He and his family settled in Los Angeles, and Allensworth began a lecture tour to inspire blacks to become self-sufficient through education, industriousness, and thriftiness. While on his tour Allensworth met a man named William Payne, who convinced Allensworth to put his ideas into action by establishing a community for blacks to live free from the racism and discrimination that permeated post-Civil War America. On June 30, 1908 Allensworth, Payne, and three other men formed the California Colony and Home Promoting Association, which had the goal of founding a town which was to be wholly created and governed by blacks. Land that was located 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles was purchased from the Pacific Farming Company, a private firm which had been formed to assist in the development of rural areas. This land was chosen because it was fertile, and within it was a station on the railroad line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. In addition to land, it was necessary to secure water, and this was accomplished by striking a deal with the Pacific Farming Company. The future town was named Allensworth.
At first the town was a great success. People moved into the town, structures were built, and municipal facilities, such as a school and a library, were put in place. By 1913 Allensworth was a thriving community with the promise of growing even larger. However, events began to turn against the town. In 1914 the railroad company built a spur around the town that allowed trains to bypass Allensworth, which caused the town to become isolated. The railroad company’s decision to do this resulted from a conflict between the town and the railroad company regarding hiring practices for the town’s station, because the company refused to hire blacks to work at the station. Another problem for the town arose when the Pacific Farming Company reneged on its promise to supply water to the town. The incident that most adversely impacted the town of Allensworth was the death under mysterious circumstances of the person after whom the town was named. Allen Allensworth died on September 14, 1914 at the age of 72 after he was struck by a motorcycle in Monrovia, California, which is near Los Angeles. The two young white men who were riding the motorcycle claimed that Allensworth caused the accident, although there was never a satisfactory resolution of culpability. Whatever were the truths about the accident, Allen Allensworth was gone, and without his guidance and determination, the town of Allensworth was left without its driving force. Allensworth, California struggled on for several more decades, but by 1972 the population had shrunk to very few. In the next few years a movement began to save the town, and by 1976 the state of California had purchased the land and made the site of the town a state park, which is still operating. Some might question the wisdom of preserving something that in the end was a failure, but as one person wrote about the town of Allensworth, “The fact that Allensworth ultimately failed is not the most important fact about the venture. What mattered then is that the attempt was made. And what matters now is that all Americans finally discover the depths of character and vision of those who, through their attempt to build a colony, tried to provide an opportunity for men and women to transcend race-based limits, and thus control their own destinies.”
Allen Allensworth was born into slavery, but he rose out of slavery to become a free man and then to make important contributions to our country. Maybe it was simply not Allensworth’s destiny to live his life in bondage, contributing only to his master’s horse races and remaining forever unknown to future generations. Maybe this was not the life that destiny had in mind for Allen Allensworth. Maybe the life that destiny had preordained for Allen Allensworth was to be an army chaplain and an innovator in education and to found a town that bore his name. In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan became enraged at Forrest when Lieutenant Dan felt that Forrest had denied him his destiny. Lieutenant Dan shouted at Forrest, “We all have a destiny. Nothing just happens; it’s all part of a plan.” Forrest’s mother showed that she had an opposing point of view when just before she died she told Forrest, “I happened to believe you make your own destiny.” Later in the movie, after Forrest’s mother and wife had died, Forrest stood over his wife’s grave and said, “I don’t know if Momma was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both.” Perhaps, as Lieutenant Dan believed, it was destiny that brought Allen Allensworth from obscurity in slavery to a place in history. Or maybe, as Forrest stated, it was some combination of destiny and happenstance. But I have to say that I agree with Forrest’s mother. I do not believe that some overarching hidden power deserves credit for Allen Allensworth’s greatness and accomplishments and for his place in history. The credit for all of this belongs solely to Allen Allensworth. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny.” This quote accurately expresses the reason that Allen Allensworth has a place in history, because Allen Allensworth possessed the exceptional character to make his own destiny.