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Fort Douglas Officer, a Former Slave, Left a Lasting Impression on the West
Will Bagley
Published: 11/17/2002 Edition: Final Section: Utah  Page: B2

One of the most impressive 19th-century residents of Salt Lake City was born a slave in 1842, served as a Kentucky elector and delegate to the Republican national party conventions in the 1880s and died promoting a visionary California community named in his honor.               

After acquiring an illegal education, Allen Allensworth escaped from slavery on his third attempt in 1862. He served as a nurse in the 44th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War and became a chief petty officer on one of the Union gunboats that liberated the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two.               

After the war, Allensworth graduated from college and taught school for the Freedman's Bureau. He became a Baptist minister in 1871, and President Cleveland commissioned him in 1886 as chaplain of the 24th Infantry, one of the regiments known to history as the Buffalo Soldiers.               

Allensworth served with the 24th during a decade of hard duty in Arizona and New Mexico territories. He established schools to help his men improve their lives, and he addressed the National Education Association at its 1891 convention.

The 24th was transferred to Fort Douglas, Utah, in 1896 as a reward for its years in the army's southwestern "hellholes," but it proved to be a tough assignment for Allensworth. With unfortunate encouragement from The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake residents bitterly protested having black troops stationed so close to the city.               

The discipline and good conduct of the men helped diffuse the controversy, aided by the regiment's outstanding band and crack drilling. Allensworth became a popular speaker at Salt Lake churches and social events.               

On Dec. 14, 1896, LDS prophet Wilford Woodruff noted (with his inimitable spelling): "I was visited by the Coulered Chaplain of the Armey & others." Tolerance triumphed when Allensworth met with the Mormon prophet, and a week later Woodruff said "that he in common with the rest of our citizens desired to welcome all the members of the Twenty-fourth regiment to our city."               

Lt. Col. Allensworth retired in 1906 as the senior chaplain and highest-ranking African-American officer in the U.S. Army. The colonel was too idealistic to settle into a peaceful retirement, and in 1908 he became president of the California Colony and Home Promoting Association.               

The association set out to create a township where African-Americans could establish a community and demonstrate they were capable of living independently of the constraints and prejudice of white society.                

Allensworth was a good friend of educator Booker T. Washington, and his proposed town was seen as a possible "Tuskegee of the West." Under the colonel's leadership, the association founded Allensworth in the heart of California's Central Valley. Before long, the settlement boasted of a post office, railroad station, hotel, and a population of 200 families who supported themselves primarily by farming.                

Allensworth died in 1914 under mysterious circumstances on his way to preach at Shiloh Baptist Church in Monrovia.  He was run over by a motorcycle -- repeatedly. Lack of water crippled the town he had founded, and it almost dried up and blew away.               

But the town of Allensworth refused to die. Migrants from Mexico eventually replaced many of the original settlers, and 100 children still attend the local school.

In 1972, California passed legislation creating Allensworth State Historic Park. Four years later, the state began developing a 240-acre monument to Col. Allensworth and the visionaries who created a town that still celebrates the pride of black Americans and their quest for social justice.

Author and Historian Will Bagley is indebted to Michael J. Clark for his study of African-Americans at Fort Douglas.

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