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Allenville: History of the all-Black community near Buckeye

Posted at 7:36 AM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 10:36:14-04

It's a rarely noticed piece of land just south of Buckeye. There's nothing but overgrowth weeds and cinder blocks here now, but if you listen and look closely, you'll see strong Black roots and hear voices from the past.

"You literally can see the places and even hear some of the laughter," reflected former Allenvile resident, Rachel Lee.

"From the back to the front, I can visualize everything... Because I was there," said former resident Alfred Anderson.

In fact, an entire community was once here in an all-Black town named Allenville.

"It was safe," Lee said.

Lee, who went by her maiden name of Wilburn at the time, says the memories are strong and fond growing up in a Black community that felt like family.

"As kids, we could run and play throughout the community. Everybody watched out for everybody's kids, everybody chastised everybody's kids, yelled at everybody's kids, it was truly that sense of neighbors helping each other," she said. "We'd get a softball game going and adults and children alike would come down, we'd makeshift bases and we'd play baseball or volleyball. If we were barbecuing out in the yard people would just come up and play, and it was like that. It didn't have to be a holiday, it was like that all the time."

But Lee says the significance of living in a thriving Black community, with Black-owned businesses, never really dawned on her as a kid at the time.

"Mr. Jones had a store that sold little things, penny candy, that's where the kids would go and hang out," she fondly remembers. "He had a jukebox, and that's what we had."

Lee's father, Arthur Wilburn Jr., is a second-generation Allenville resident, brought here by his father when the family moved from Louisiana. He says life growing up in Allenville for him was a little less nostalgic.

"I had to have a job! Wasn't a lot of hanging out going on," Wilburn said.

Allenville came to be back in 1944 when John Allen, a Black man, purchased the one square mile of subdivided land from a Phoenix realtor. Many of the first settlers were seasonal workers on the cotton farms. As for population, most say it lingered just below 400, split between 60 to 70 families.

But there was one big problem -- the water.

"The water in Allenville was not drinkable," said Jo Ann Shoemaker, last name Anderson at the time.

Like everyone in Allenville, she had to deal with the undrinkable water on a daily basis. Families had to boil it and haul in fresh water from Buckeye.

Jo Ann, the oldest, often had to look after her younger brother, Alfred, while their parents worked.

"I was always getting in trouble," Alfred said, throughout a deep belly laugh.

He too recalled dealing with the bad water just to take a bath.

"We set the water outside and put it in the tub and let the sun heat the water," he said. "We take baths out that's a memory I will never forget."

To make sure they never forgot, Jo Ann wrote a book on Allenville, titled, "A Family Within a Family."

"We were so close-knit, we were like one big family," she said. "If one hurt, we all hurt."

Allenville residents shared the same burdens as well, once again caused by water. The town was formed on a piece of land susceptible to devastating floods.

Lee remembers it well.

"Just having to be packed up and put in my dad's truck camper and having to get to high ground until the water receded," Lee said. "Then going in and cleaning up the mess, and the mildew, and the smell."

In fact, the last big flood in 1978 effectively washed Allenville right off the map.

"I remember seeing cows, horses, coming down the water," Alfred said. "I seen houses, you know, just things floating down the water, and it's a memory that will stick with me all my life," he said.

"Just going back and seeing what I knew as home ravaged by the water," Lee said. "The waterline up to my waist, mud line up to your ankles. Seeing the things that are precious to you that you can't replace, damaged by the water."

The federal government finally stepped in, providing FEMA trailers for families on higher ground, before eventually relocating Allenville residents some eight miles north to a new town called Hopeville. And while the water was better there, people started going their separate ways, and the magic that was once Allenville was lost.

"Year after year, the sense of community became non-existent," Lee said.

But the rich Black history of Allenville, told by its residents, lives on.

"I'm very proud of where I came from," Alfred said. "I wouldn't change it for nothing in the world, for nothing in the world."

"The story does need to be told," Lee said. "It does need to be known, and I'm not ashamed of it, I'm very proud of it. So I want to help share that and maybe one day we will be in the history books," she said.

At the time, Black residents couldn't live in nearby Buckeye until the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. However, the children in Allenville were driven by bus to Buckeye schools. Lee says she never experienced any racism at school and is still friends with her White classmates to this day.

Note: ABC15 heard about the story of Allenville from a Black history month post on the Estrella Mountain Community College website.