Reference Entry

Allensworth, Allen (1842 - 1914), Slave, Baptist Clergyperson, City and Town Founder / Benefactor

Jacob Andrew Freedman

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Allensworth, Allen (1842 - 1914), Slave, Baptist Clergyperson, City and Town Founder / Benefactor

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soldier, minister, and social activist, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the youngest of the six children of Levi Allensworth and Phyllis (maiden name unknown), slaves of the Starbird family. The Starbirds were respected members of the community and were partners in Wilson, Starbird, and Smith, a wholesale drug company based in Louisville. Levi died when Allen was an infant. Phyllis's other five children either had been sold down the Mississippi River or had escaped to Canada. Phyllis hoped that Allen could “even if partly educated, win his freedom” (Alexander, 9). Believing that God would play a role in his redemption as well, Phyllis named Allen after Richard Allen, the founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In Allen Allensworth's early years he was given to Thomas Starbird, Mrs. Starbird's son, as a companion.When Thomas was sent to school, Allensworth's mother saw an opportunity for her son to become educated, even though it was a crime for a slave to do so. She instructed him to get “your ‘Marse’ Tom to play school with you every day he comes home; then you can learn to read and write like him” (Alexander, 8). Allensworth convinced Tom to do this, and the boys turned Tom's nursery into a classroom. Tom diligently relayed his school lessons to Allensworth every day. When this practice was revealed to Starbird, another home was found for Allensworth: he was put in the custody of Mr. and Mrs. Talbot, Quakers. This change was fortuitous for Allensworth, who was sent to the Sunday afternoon slave school at the St. Paul Protestant Episcopal Church, where slaves were taught the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and to obey their masters. Furthermore, Mrs. Talbot also instructed him in spelling and reading. When Mrs. Starbird discovered that the boy was being taught to read, he was sold to John J. Smith, the owner of a large plantation in Henderson County, Kentucky. After saying goodbye to his mother, Allensworth left Louisville in the spring of 1854 aboard the steamer Rainbow. Before boarding the steamer he managed to purchase a copy of Noah Webster's blue-back spelling book, a book second in popularity only to the Bible among slaves who could get either.A short time after arriving Allensworth was discovered studying his book by Smith's wife and was punished. He also became friends with Eddie, a young orphan white boy. Ironically, Eddie was routinely punished for not completing his lessons. The two quickly formed an alliance and studied together whenever circumstances allowed.Allensworth was not caught studying again; however, he was not able to avoid trouble altogether. When the Smiths left to visit their brother in Louisville, an overseer beat him severely. This inspired Allensworth to escape to Canada. Allensworth, thirteen years old, made it only a few miles away from the Smith farm before being caught. When the Smiths returned, Allensworth was sold downriver to New Orleans, where he was offered for sale at the auction house of Poindexter & Little with more than a thousand other slaves. In New Orleans, Allensworth was bought by Fred Scruggs, a horse racer. He became a jockey and returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where he remained the property of Scruggs until 1861, when the Civil War erupted.In spring 1861 Scruggs made a business trip to Mobile, Alabama. He was unable to return because of the war, and Allensworth was shuffled between several masters over the next year. When the Confederate general Braxton Bragg's advance reached Louisville, Allensworth was invited to become a member of the hospital corps of the Forty-fourth Illinois and became a freeman. Soon after this, General William S. Rosecrans's Union forces moved on Bragg's position and forced a retreat. Nurse Allensworth reported for duty in Nashville, Tennessee, under Dr. Gordon of Georgetown, Ohio. On Dr. Gordon's advice, Allensworth enlisted in the navy in April 1863.Immediately after reporting for duty aboard the gunboat Queen City, Allensworth was selected as a wardroom steward and was given thirty dollars a month. This was his first paid job as a freeman, and he advanced quickly thanks to his loyal service. For example, when two other African American members of the crew deserted, Allensworth decided to remain behind. As a direct result he became the captain's steward and was given a raise of five dollars a month. He was honorably discharged on 4 April 1865, days before the official end of the Civil War.Two years later Allensworth and his brother William opened two restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri. This venture proved successful, and they attempted to expand their business. However, after being falsely accused of passing counterfeit currency, they sold both restaurants and left St. Louis. Allensworth returned to Louisville, where he found his mother and began supporting her. In addition he became both janitor and pupil at the Ely Normal School for freemen, organized by the American Missionary Society of New York. Allensworth remained at this school until the Freedmen's Bureau applied to the principal for a young man to go to Christmasville, five miles south of Louisville, to teach. Allensworth accepted the position and in 1868 took over this school.Allensworth's congregation, the Fifth Street Baptist Church in Louisville, ordained him as its minister on 9 April 1871. Realizing his lack of biblical expertise, he enrolled in the Theological Institute at Nashville. From this point on Allensworth combined his skills as a teacher, preacher, and disciplinarian to develop churches, schools, and corporations with a view toward providing African Americans the moral and intellectual tools that he considered necessary for success as freemen. He built not only institutions but also an irreproachable reputation for integrity and intelligence. Allensworth had notable achievements in the Kentucky towns of Franklin, Georgetown, Elizabethtown, Louisville, and Bowling Green. Before accepting a post in Bowling Green he married Josephine Leavell (Josephine Leavell Allensworth) on 20 September 1877. They had one boy, who died shortly after birth, and two girls, who survived to adulthood.While in Bowling Green, Reverend Allensworth became politically active. He was a Republican elector in 1880 and was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1880 and again in 1884. He further increased his public stature by authoring five lectures: “Five Manly Virtues,” “Humbugs and How They Live,” “The Battle of Life and How to Fight it,” “America,” and “Character and How to Read It.” Temporarily leaving his congregation, he embarked upon a tour of New England, supported by the Williams Lecture Bureau of Boston, Massachusetts. His lectures were hailed as extraordinary by newspapers from Kentucky to Boston.Shortly after his mother died in 1878, Allensworth left Bowling Green and accepted a post as pastor of a Baptist church in Cincinnati, Ohio. There in 1882 an African American soldier brought it to Allensworth's attention that African American regiments were served by white chaplains. After learning that the chaplain of the Twenty-fourth Infantry was to retire in four years, Allensworth mobilized his friends to help him gain the chaplaincy. As a result, both Charles P. Jacob and Senator Joseph E. Brown met with President Grover Cleveland about the new chaplaincy. He became Chaplain Allensworth of the Twenty-fourth Infantry on 3 June 1886.Allensworth served as chaplain until 1906. During this time he strove for the advancement and improvement of all enlisted men by designing an educational curriculum for servicemen at all levels of rank and responsibility. This curriculum was so successful that it was adopted throughout the U.S. Army. Through his powers of oration he won other smaller victories, such as convincing white officers to salute him. Allensworth emphasized that he would go out of his way to avoid a salute from a man who, having sworn to obey army regulations, would violate this oath. Allensworth called upon influential friends such as Congressman John Mercer Langston to draw attention to inequalities in the system of army deployment and appointment that made it impossible for an African American to be promoted from an African American regiment. His actions made promotion an official possibility for African American enlisted men. Allensworth's military career began winding down in 1900 when he injured his knee serving in the Philippines. Allensworth reinjured this knee in January 1901 and requested a transfer to Fort McDowell, California, where he had been recuperating. This transfer was granted. He served until 1906, when he was retired at his own request with the rank of lieutenant colonel, then the highest rank ever achieved by an African American in the U.S. Army.After retiring, Allensworth and his family settled in Los Angeles. Though retired, Allensworth never ceased working for the advancement of African Americans. With the professor William Payne, the minister William Peck, and the real estate agent Harry Mitchell, Allensworth created an all-black community in Tulare County, California. The town was called Allensworth and in 1914 reached a peak population of approximately two hundred. As the community he founded reached its apex in prosperity, Allensworth's life ended suddenly when he stepped off a streetcar and was struck by a motorcycle.Allen Allensworth began life with no advantages but worked tirelessly to succeed. Having illicitly obtained an education, he came to believe that inequality was a result of limited opportunity and nothing else, a belief reinforced by his success as a teacher, preacher, and chaplain. This attitude was embodied in the creation of California's first all-black community.After Allen Allensworth's death, his town, Allensworth, prospered for a short time. However, when the Pacific Farming Company refused to provide water as promised, economic activity slowed. With the water table falling and the economy failing, the community began to collapse. After the Great Depression and World War II, Allensworth never recovered. In 1971 the town became Colonel Allensworth State Park, and many of the original buildings were restored. The park stands not only as a testament to Allensworth's life and lasting achievements but also as a reminder of the struggle of African Americans to create positive social environments during the nadir of race relations in the United States.

Reference Entry.  1696 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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