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Allen Allensworth: From Slavery to High Military Honor (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 29, 2010

Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1842, Allen Allensworth escaped to serve as a hospital steward with a Union army unit during the Civil War. Before the war was over, he joined the Navy, becoming a chief petty officer aboard a gunboat on the Ohio River.

The young man seized every opportunity for the education denied him as a child, and by 1870 became a teacher himself. He was ordained a minister in 1871, served from Kentucky in the Electoral College of 1880, and in 1886 was appointed chaplain of the 24th U.S. Infantry, an African American unit.

The 24th was transferred to Utah’s Fort Douglas in 1896, a transfer harshly condemned by the Salt Lake Tribune.

Allensworth, more than any other officer, was responsible for defending the honor of the 24th. He conducted schools, organized entertainments, and provided every incentive for his men to spend their free time at the Fort and not in the city’s saloons. He patrolled the streets personally, ordering soldiers who had over-indulged to return to camp. Night after night, he rode the streetcars, staring into submission any soldier who was inclined to be boisterous; when his streetcar headed toward Fort Douglas, Allensworth left that car and caught one returning to downtown, escorting each group of soldiers through town until all were safely back to camp. He convinced his men to boycott a dive set up for them just beyond the gates of Fort Douglas.

There were no – not one – disturbances by inebriated soldiers on Allensworth’s watch.

Allensworth joined the McKean Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the organization for Civil War veterans), and soon rose to prominence among his white comrades: He sat on the dais at all official functions, gave the Memorial Day oration at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, was elected as the post’s representative to the national encampment, and served as the chaplain to the state organization.

Allensworth preached at Salt Lake churches. He accepted an invitation to address students at the University of Utah – among them students who had been at the station to meet with hisses the train bringing the 24th Infantry to their new assignment, but who were now enthusiastic in their praise of the unit.

Late in October 1897, Allensworth called at the Tribune to remind the editor of the newspaper’s excoriating words of exactly one year earlier. Together they reviewed the record of the 24th Infantry, and the Tribune printed a reevaluation:

“On the eve of the arrival of the 24th at Fort Douglas, an article appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune which was not very complimentary to the regiment. … A year’s sojourn of the regiment at the post has wrought a change in that sentiment. … There seems to be a double influence for good always with this regiment. One is the pride which the soldier feels in his profession, the other the counsels, influence and example of Chaplain Allensworth. … If there is any bad, real bad character among them, such an one has kept his real nature concealed. … The regiment has lived down the apprehensions awakened when the announcement of their coming was made, and they are now appreciated at their worth, as citizens and soldiers above reproach.

“As for the officers of the regiment, we do not believe that they realize just how much the citizens of Salt Lake esteem them.”

The 24th Infantry left Utah in 1898 for distinguished service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.

Allensworth retired in 1906 as a lieutenant colonel, the Army’s highest ranking African American officer to that time. Settling with his family near Los Angeles, Allensworth was free to pursue his long-time dream of organizing a community free of racial discrimination and in an atmosphere “favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty.” In 1908 he founded the town of Allensworth, Tulare County.

Allensworth died in a traffic accident in 1914. His model town is now a state historic park.



7 Comments »

  1. What an inspiring story. My wife is from Tulare county, California. I’ll have to ask her if she knows much about the community he founded.

    Ardis(or anyone else familiar with Allensworth)what were his thoughts about the LDS church? What type of relationship did he have with the Church? Just curious.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 29, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  2. I’ve never found anything explicitly addressing Mormonism (his biography is online here but doesn’t seem to mention Mormonism). The students who were so enthusiastically appreciative of his speech at the University of Utah were in those days overwhelmingly LDS, for whatever that suggests culturally about an LDS appraisal of him, but I haven’t found any reference to him in church records. The military, the GAR, and the local churches he interacted with were largely non-Mormon.

    So I too would be interested in anything addressing Steve’s question, because I have so little relevant data.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 29, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  3. A very interesting story. Now its bookmarked and safely tucked in a file of resources for the next time I teach a survey of American Lit/History course…

    Comment by Mina — January 29, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  4. “staring into submission any soldier who was inclined to be boisterous”

    I like that technique myself. Use it all the time on my kids during Sacrament Meeting.

    Great story, thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — January 29, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  5. Here is the website for the Col. Allensworth State Historical Park in California.

    http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=583

    It’s informative.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 30, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  6. Thanks, Steve, there’s a lot on that site.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 30, 2010 @ 9:59 am

  7. hey ardis, good story, I saw some of the post returns for Fort Douglas here at the national archives. I’ll check to see what those records have to say about him

    Comment by J paul — January 30, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

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