U.S. House, 54th Congress, 1st Session (H. Doc. 369, Part 2). “General Order Number 3,” 1896. U.S. Documents Collection. Y 1.1/2: SERIAL 3437. Image courtesy of the Texas State Library and Arts Commission. (Source: Texas State Library and Arts Commission)
Continuing the longstanding tradition started by free African Americans in Texas, hundreds of Juneteenth celebrations are set to take place in person this year with several events across the Golden State expecting high attendance.
Although Juneteenth originated in Texas, the commemoration of the holiday spread across the U.S. as newly freed African Americans migrated to western states like Oklahoma and California. Susan Anderson, historian and History Curator and Program Manager at the California African American Museum, explained that Texas is one of the main origin points for many Californians.
Noteworthy Californians such as Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley (the first and so far only African American mayor of L.A.) or former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown (the first African American to hold that office) both came from families who originated in Texas and ultimately had an impact on Black history.
Tom Bradley and Willie Brown. (sources: Bradley ucla.edu, Brown wikicommons.com)
“The other thing I would say is that Texas and California share a history of enslavement of African Americans, even though California was admitted in 1850 as a free state to the United States and Texas was a slave state, a lot of people are not aware of the practice of slavery in California or in Texas,” Anderson said. “But both states were shaped, were born out of the politics of slavery, of the compromises that were made in the Congress during this time, and both states were the sites of the practice of enslavement of African Americans.”
The Creation of Black Settlements
With the migration of African Americans from southern slave states, an onslaught of Black colonies were developed by newly freed people who were fleeing violence in former Confederate states. According to Anderson, the first big movements from southern states by Black people was into the West where they established Black towns during the post-Reconstruction Era (after 1877) and it extended through the 20th century. A notable Black settlement in California is Allensworth, located in Tulare County, north of Bakersfield.
Allensworth was founded in 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth, a former slave, and William Payne, a teacher, along with members of the California Colony and Home Promoting Association. The association included officers J.W. Palmer, W.H. Peck, and Harry Mitchell. The goals of the association were to buy land, develop a town and neighboring farms and then resell the lots to Black people who would help create a thriving community. According to
California State Archives, the town planners named its avenues after prominent African Americans, such as Attucks and Sojourner Streets and also Civil War heroes, Lincoln and Grant. They also created Booker T. Washington Park.
Image courtesy of the Friends of Allensworth non-profit cooperating association that works with the State of California’s Department of Parks and Recreation. (Source: Friends of Allensworth)
The town thrived as the citizens raised cattle and chickens, and sugar beets grew over the 900 acres of land. In 1914, Allensworth citizens elected the state’s first African American Justice of the Peace, Oscar Overr. By then, the town had its own school system, churches, library, post office and was inhabited by approximately 250 people. Historians also note that Allensworth was a community with social programs such as The Owl Club, the Campfire Girls, the Girls’ Glee Club and the Theater Club.
The Decline of a Black Utopia
As Allensworth was at the height of development, it began to decline due to a series of crises. The first crisis, and arguably the most impactful crisis on the town, was the death of Allen Allensworth. Allensworth was struck by a motorcycle in 1914 while visiting Monrovia, CA. Along with Allensworth’s death, the town suffered from purposeful decisions that left the community of Allensworth isolated and bereft.
In 1914, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway added a spur track, a short branch track leading from the main track, to Alpaugh. This track intentionally bypassed Allensworth so that White residents would not have to interact with the Black citizens of Allensworth, according to Archivist Beth Behnam. The Santa Fe Railway was one of the nation’s largest railways, as noted by the
Southern California Railway Museum, and by diverting the route from Allensworth, the town was deprived of the carrying trade.
In addition to the loss of railway access, Allensworth also faced issues surrounding water access. Initially, a private water company agreed to drill water for the community but later reneged on that agreement. By the time the town got ownership over its water system, it was outdated. By 1967, although the population of Allensworth was significantly small, water inspectors discovered high concentrations of arsenic in the water supply. In 1969, Allensworth was at risk of being sold to ranchers through a tax lien sale.
Known as “the town that refused to die,” Allensworth was protected from being sold by the Department of Parks and Recreation who received encouragement from local organizations and advocates, such as Ed Pope, who suggested the town be commemorated as a historic site. Allensworth officially became a California State Historic Park in 1973.
“California also had many other Black settlements throughout the state. Allensworth was one of the most sophisticated, it was one of the longest-lasting, but it was not the only one,” Anderson added. Anderson is currently the historian on the Interpretive Planning Committee for state parks and has been working with Allensworth for a while.
Maintaining Black History through Education
Black settlements were also abundant in Texas as free people sought safe places to live. In East Texas, there were over 500 Black settlements. A project called
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project was created by Dr. Andrea Roberts to map and document the existence of Black colonies across Texas.
According to the project, “From 1865-1930, African Americans accumulated land and founded 557 historic Black settlements or freedom colonies. Since their founding, freedom colony descendants have dispersed, and hundreds of settlements’ status and locations are unknown.”
An image captured from The Texas Freedom Colonies Project’s Atlas 2.1. The dots represent various colonies in Texas, organized across different parameters such as whether the colony has been located, needs for research or received public input. (Source: The Texas Freedom Colonies Project’s Atlas 2.1)
Anderson explained that the Black town movement, especially in the West, was a “real force” for Black people who wanted to participate in civic life, own property, and just live as free people.
“That’s partly what I try to do in my job as a public historian
—document these stories, tell these stories, work with other people to make them accessible to as many people as possible,” Anderson said.
As Juneteenth becomes more widely recognized, so does its history, but there is still so much information and origin stories that are unknown. The reason the declaration was made in Texas on June 19, 1866 by the U.S. Army was because Texan slaveholders refused to recognize the end of the Civil War and the loss of the Confederate.
“Juneteenth is a celebration of the United States Army coming to Texas to put an end to the resistance, the Confederate resistance. A lot of people don’t realize that,” Anderson said. “To me, this holiday is important because we’re in a country that obviously isn’t ready to hear about the history of slavery. People aren’t ready to hear this
—White people aren’t ready to hear this history and that’s exactly why we have to keep commemorating it.”
Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at email@example.com or via twitter @_breereeves.