OAKLAND — It seemed like a bad thing at first. Because of high gas prices, organizers were forced to scuttle the annual road trip taking 17 busloads of people from Oakland to Allensworth State Historic Park in the Central Valley — the site of a pioneer settlement that was governed, financed and operated by African-Americans in the early 1900s. But Eddie Abrams says that was just a blessing in disguise.
"We're going to have the celebration here in Oakland instead, at Merritt College," said an enthusiastic Abrams, 76, who is the founder of Oakland's nonprofit Family Resource House of Unity.
Abrams has organized the popular Allensworth bus trip for the past five years to recognize this often-overlooked piece of black history.
"This is the 100th year anniversary of Allensworth, and I had planned a bigger trip than ever," Abrams said. "Then the bus company called me. We had made a verbal agreement a while back, but they told me, because of the gas prices, they would go bankrupt doing it for the original price. So it was just getting too expensive all around.
"I was crushed when I thought we couldn't go," he said. "But my creator had something better in store. We'll bring it to Oakland. We'll have the docents come up and provide some history lectures. We'll have the Black Cowboys here. There will be music. It will be a wonderful event. More people will be able to come, and that's really what it was all about to begin with, creating awareness, bringing people together and healing our community."
Details are still in the works for the Sept. 20 event. Dubbed the "Peace and Unity Day Celebration," the event will be free and held at various venues on the Merritt College campus. Abrams has scheduled Ezell Ware Jr., a retired brigadier general with the California National Guard, as the keynote speaker.
The town of Allensworth was named for another military man, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth, a former slave who became the highest-ranking African-American in the U.S. Army.
Born into a Kentucky slave family in 1842, he was sold for trying to learn to read and write and eventually escaped slavery by joining the Union Army. He then served in the U.S. Navy from 1863 to 1867 and was honorably discharged as a petty officer, first class.
After the Civil War, he received a formal education and was ordained a Baptist minister. Later he was a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1880 and 1884. For 20 years, he was a chaplain for the 24th Infantry, one of the famed all-black "Buffalo Soldier" regiments, and retired in 1906 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then traveled the country, lecturing on the principles of self-reliance championed by Booker T. Washington.
Allensworth's dream was to create a place where African-Americans could improve their economic and social status. In 1908, he and colleague William Payne bought 800 acres in the Central Valley, touting the town as a place where blacks could own property and live without oppression. Word spread, and the town thrived for about 10 years, with a post office, schoolhouse, bakery, barbershop, restaurants, a general store and a hotel. It had the first public library in Tulare County.
After Allensworth died — hit by a motorcycle in 1914 — the little utopia began to decline. The town was eventually abandoned, then finally reclaimed as a state park in 1976. Buildings were restored, and the park now draws about 10,000 visitors a year.
Last year, Abrams and others vigorously protested plans to build two megadairy operations across the highway from the park. A deal was eventually reached between the state and the farmer who wanted to build the dairies. The farmer received $3.5 million to keep any captive livestock at least 2½ miles from Allensworth.
Abrams started the annual bus trip to Allensworth five years ago, after discovering how few people knew of its significance. Last year, about 900 people took the bus trip from Oakland.
"People should be aware of this part of history and celebrate it," Abrams said. "And not just blacks. Black history is world history. It's not separate."
For more information on the upcoming Allensworth event, call 510-430-9931.
Reach Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-208-6493.