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A Piece of History Lands in a Contemporary Fight

In the United States, historical points of interest - homes, forts, even entire communities - are often preserved as parks, places where visitors can learn a little more about the past. But historic preservation sometimes conflicts with the march of progress, especially when profitable new developments are involved. Earlier this year, conservationists in Pennsylvania stopped plans for a casino near the historic Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. Now activists in California are fighting to save a park dedicated to African-American history: Allensworth.

Colonel Allen Allensworth was a freed slave who believed the only way African-Americans could live in true freedom was to create and govern their own town. He made that dream a reality in 1908, when he founded the community of Allensworth on a patch of scrubby ground in California's rural Central Valley.

He told potential settlers he planned to build an all-black university in the town, and hoped to create a self-sufficient community, governed and financed by African-Americans. Settlers came. At its peak, the town was home to some 300 residents. Many ran businesses catering to passing train travelers. Others were farmers. But the town went downhill when railroad officials moved the train depot a few miles away.

Today, Allensworth is a tiny farmworker community surrounded by fields and populated mostly by Latinos. The original settlement has been made into a state park. Rangers lead school groups on tours of some of the original wooden buildings, now restored with brightly colored paint.

Some African-American residents still live on the edge of the park. Cornelius Ed Pope moved here with his parents some two decades after the town was founded. Pope was among those who successfully petitioned the California Legislature in 1979 to protect Allensworth as a state park. He says it's not just the physical property that's significant; it's what the town stood for. "A lot of people felt that Allensworth was African-Americans pulling away from the American principles, ideals," he recalls, "[that we felt] we don't want no white folk in this town, we're all by ourselves, we're going to do this on our own. That it was a pull away. Actually, what it was, was one of those American stories, a little town that was trying to help this nation overcome."

Today, hundreds of supporters attend annual picnics in the park to celebrate Black History month in February and Juneteenth, the June 19th holiday marking the end of slavery. Pope says it's hard to imagine the park would be the same if two big dairies - with more than 7000 cows - are built right across the street. "The smell, the flies, these dairy flies, they bite. We wouldn't be able to have any more picnics here. It will take out the music and the barbeques and the dancing. That will all be gone."

David Albers, an attorney for the farmer who owns the land where the dairies would be built, says that won't happen. "This project is really good news for the people of Allensworth," he insists. The farmer now plants row crops on the property, and Albers says the new dairies will bring jobs and an economic boost to the community. "It's going to be over $20 million in construction costs, so that will increase the tax base of the county. The dairies will provide 60 full-time year-round jobs."

And as for pollution concerns, Albers says his client has had to meet stringent county environmental safety requirements, and a consultant has determined flies aren't likely to travel far enough to invade the state park.

That assertion brings out the fire in Neddy Morrison's eyes. She's president of the Allensworth Town Council. "The flies are not an issue? The water's not an issue? The air is not an issue? Do they think we're insane?" she storms. "I mean, God gave us common sense. Where there's cows, there's a smell!"

Morrison gave up life in the city to move to Allensworth after learning about the history of the town. That was 30 years ago, long after most African-American residents had left. Dozens of supporters of the Allensworth State Park, including Colonel Allensworth's granddaughter, have testified against the new dairies. Neddy Morrison told local officials, "You can relocate a dairy. You can't relocate our history." Ed Pope say they'll do whatever it takes to stop thousands of cows from moving in across the street. "This is a cultural monument dedicated to the Black pioneers of California," he reminds people. "Just to make a cow bathroom out it? Nah, they can't do that!"

The local County Board of Supervisors is expected to make a final decision on whether to permit the new dairies later this month [March 20]. Even if the dairies get the go-ahead, California's Parks' Department may try to reach a compromise. They've asked the farmer to consider selling his land - or the right to build a dairy on it - to a land trust. That would create a buffer of open space next to Allensworth State Park and keep any flies far away from the park's picnic tables.