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.