Allen Allensworth blazed new trails in adult education by establishing education programs for African American soldiers in the U. S. Army throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Though born a slave, Allensworth served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. Following the war, he became a minister and teacher. In 1886, he entered the Army as a chaplain and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment. The regiment’s “Buffalo Soldiers” were Black and all officers except Allensworth were White. During this period, chaplains Army-wide also were responsible for on-post education of enlisted soldiers, many of whom were barely literate.
Allensworth’s first assignment was in Indian Territory. He arrived to find that his “post school” did not exist. Undeterred, he prepared a facility and devised a three-level course in basic education, developing and printing his own study materials. His innovations were approved and recommended to Army Headquarters for widespread adoption. Later, recognizing the value of technology, Allensworth even introduced the use of the stereopticon and slides, which he purchased from his own meager salary.
Also to be noted, the military and educational leaders of Allensworth’s time were White, and most felt that Blacks were lacking in intellect and leadership skills. Allensworth’s greatest contribution to adult education was in disabusing them of that view, which he did by developing exceptional educational programs, exhibiting impeccable integrity, and carefully traversing the social minefields of segregation.
For 20 years with the 24th Infantry Regiment, Allensworth organized learning programs, developed curriculum, personally paid for books and materials, and taught classes. He received written recognition and commendations for his unique efforts, eventually retiring as the Army’s highest-ranking African American officer. His legacy of learning benefited the Buffalo Soldiers as they returned to civilian life, and surely that legacy cascaded to their progeny through subsequent generations.
Allensworth is an exemplar for today’s adult educators, through his initiatives not only to develop educational programs but also to publicize and distribute them. His achievements were recognized in the Army and within the larger civilian education community. The most memorable evidence of this came when he was selected to speak at the National Education Association’s joint conference with Canadian educators in Toronto in 1891. According to his biographer, Allensworth chose not to address some phase of the “Negro Problem” as seems to have been expected. Instead, he requested that he be permitted to discuss “The History and Progress of Military Education in the United States.” His thoughtful and informative address was covered by the Toronto Globe in an article highly complimentary of the message and of Allensworth.Allen Allensworth’s pioneering accomplishments can serve as an inspiration to those who work in the field of adult education.
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