Spotlight: Agency Joins Effort to Revive Historic Central Valley Community

  • by ACWA Staff
  • Jan 21, 2022
  • Newsletters

(l-r) Allensworth resident Dennis Hutson, Tri-Counties Water Authority Executive Director Deanna Jackson and Community Advocate and Allensworth resident Kayode Kadara belong to a collaborative effort to revive the historic Central Valley community. ACWA member agency Tri-Counties is working to secure grant funding that would provide multibenefit groundwater recharge and flood management.

On a rare rainy day deep in the Central Valley, the driver of a pickup truck sees a group of people gathered around a historical marker. He pulls off Highway 43, lowers his window and asks a question.

“Is that a town over there?”

Kayode Kadara strides over with a greeting and an answer, gesturing toward a collection of homes and buildings in the distance.

“Why yes it is, that’s Allensworth!” 

It’s not hard to miss. Located off the highway and behind its namesake state historic park, Allensworth looks a lot like one of the many tiny, hard-luck migrant farming communities that dot the Central Valley. It also shares with its neighbors daunting challenges related to poverty, housing, wastewater management and especially water quality and supply. However, the story memorialized on the historical maker sets the town apart as unique among any other community or city in California.

Founded in 1908 by Civil War veteran Colonel Allen Allensworth, the town once thrived as California’s first community established by and for African Americans. But over time, drought, lack of access to water and the discovery of arsenic contamination in its groundwater reduced Allensworth to all but a ghost town by the 1970s. 

Kadara and his brother-in-law, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dennis Hutson, are among Allensworth’s roughly 500 residents. The two men envision a brighter future for the town, one that recognizes its rich history while delivering a much higher quality of life to Allensworth’s residents. They are not alone. Kadara, a Community Advocate, and Hutson, a United Methodist Church Pastor in nearby Lemoore, are working within a collaborative effort that includes the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises and ACWA member agency Tri-County Water Authority, which is playing a pivotal role in advocating for the community and seeking state grant funding. 

Through its dual role as the area’s Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), Tri-County is applying for $2.5 million in funding from the state’s implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. If successful, the Allensworth Project would provide multi-benefit groundwater recharge and flood management. 

The shovel-ready project aims to build two 40-acre basins that would capture approximately 440 acre-feet of water when the nearby White River floods, recharging the upper aquifer beneath Allensworth while diverting floodwaters away from the town. This will address pollution, because the town’s residents rely completely on septic systems, which in most cases are aged and fail during floods and create a serious health hazard. 

The list of the town’s needs is long and goes beyond Tri-County’s currently proposed project.  Allensworth needs housing, but cannot access federal funding unless it replaces its reliance on septic tanks with a sewage system, a problem that Self-Help Enterprises is working to unravel. Meanwhile, the town relies on an aging 40,000-gallon water tank. Self-Help Enterprises and Tri-County assisted with advocacy and now a new tank with additional storage capacity will be installed next summer. Tri-County is also advocating for the installation of a second half-million gallon tank.

Tri-County along with two of its member agencies, Angiola Water District and Deer Creek Storm Water District, have a collaborative relationship that extends back to 2011.  Advocacy plays a vital role in Tri-County’s work on behalf of Allensworth, which qualifies as a Severely Disadvantaged Community.

“Allensworth truly is kind of a forgotten area,” said Tri-County Executive Director Deanna Jackson, during a tour of the town in December. “The GSA is limited in what it can do, but there are some things it can do, and one is simply bringing recognition to the community and bringing people in to understand the issues. Because if nobody knows what’s going on, or understands the issues, you certainly can’t begin to fix them.”

If Tri-County’s project gets funded, it could provide a catalyst toward a town that once again could attract residents, as well as visitors, Hutson said. Water, and clean drinking water, will prove the lynchpin. Along with Congressman David G. Valadao, Tri-County is even lending its voice in support of the U.S. Post Office returning the town’s zip code, another loss along the way during its decline. But improving Allensworth’s water infrastructure and access to water-related funding, one-step at a time, drives Tri-County’s participation in the collaborative effort. 

“You can just say ‘Hey, we’ll do what we can for you guys.’ But it’s not that, it goes beyond ‘We’ll do what we can,’” Kadara said. “It’s ‘We’ll do everything we can.’ And that’s how I see Tri-County’s efforts.”

The Story Behind The Name

The California Department of Parks and Recreation established the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in 1976. The park and town of Allensworth, are located about 30 miles north of Bakersfield off Highway 43 – the Central Valley Highway. Find out more by visiting www.parks.ca.gov. The following is based on historical information provided on the website.

Allen Allensworth was born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1842. The Civil War started, and when the Union forces neared Louisville, Allensworth found his chance for freedom. He joined the Navy and when he was discharged, he had achieved the rank of first class petty officer. 

In 1871, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. While serving at the Union Baptist Church in Cincinnati, he learned of the need for African American chaplains in the armed services, and received an appointment as Chaplain of the 24th Infantry. He retired at the rank of Colonel in 1906 as the highest ranking Black officer of his time.

He had seen many African Americans move west after the Civil War to escape discrimination. With four other men with a similar vision, Allensworth decided to establish a place where African Americans could live and thrive without oppression. On June 30, 1908, they formed the California Colony Home Promoting Association and selected an area in Tulare County because it was fertile, there was plenty of water, and the land was available and inexpensive. The little town with a big vision grew rapidly for several years – to more than 200 inhabitants – by 1914. That same year Allensworth became a voting precinct and a judicial district. Colonel Allensworth was killed on Sept. 14, 1914, when hit by a motorcycle while getting off a streetcar in Monrovia. After a funeral at the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, he was buried with full military honors.

Since most of the water for Allensworth farming had to come underground from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and there were many other farms and communities between the mountains and Allensworth, the water supply for the town and farms began to dry up. The next blow was the Great Depression that hit the whole country in the early 1930s. Public services began to shut down, and many residents moved to the cities to look for work. The Post Office closed in 1931. By the 1940s, most of the residents were migratory farm workers. The population shrunk to 90 by 1972 and later dropped to almost zero.

A drive began in the early 1970s to save the town of Allensworth. Allensworth would be an historic monument and public park dedicated to the memory and spirit of Colonel Allensworth, as well as a place to note the achievements and contributions of African Americans to the history and development of California. 

True to the courage and resolve of its founders, the town has survived and persevered, earning the well-deserved title “The town that refused to die.”

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