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Enslavement in California: A Hidden History

Bridget "Biddy" Mason (1818-1891), an African American Los Angeles pioneer leader (Biddy Mason: Wikipedia)

Above is a photo of Bridget "Biddy" Mason. "Mason became a doctor’s assistant and ran a midwifing business. She accumulated a fortune worth about $7.5 million in today’s dollars, making her one of the richest women in Los Angeles. She established a homestead in what became downtown Los Angeles. Mason used her wealth to establish a daycare center for working parents and created an account at a store where families who lost their homes in flooding could get supplies. She also co-founded and financed the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church, which is still going strong," See more of her story at "From Enslaved to Entrepreneurs."

In this blog post, I will share some of the resources that I have found useful in my quest to uncover the hidden history of black enslavement in California. I hope that this will inspire and inform others who are interested in this topic. Professor Jean Pfaelzer talked about African American enslavement in California: African American Slavery in California.

African American Slavery in California Professor Jean Pfaelzer talked about African-American slavery in California.

California State Archives

One of the first places to look for historical records is the California State Archives. The archives hold a variety of documents related to enslavement and emancipation in California, such as court cases, petitions, laws, census records, and newspapers. Some of these documents are available online, while others can be accessed by visiting the archives in person or requesting copies.

1852 California Slave Census

One of the most important documents in the archives is the 1852 California Census. This census was conducted by the state legislature to determine the number and status of enslaved people in California after it became a free state in 1850. The census lists the names, ages, genders, races, and owners of 2,520 enslaved people who were brought to California from other states or territories. The census also reveals some of the ways that enslaved people resisted their bondage, such as running away, suing for freedom, or joining the gold rush. See Pacific Bound: California’s 1852 Fugitive Slave Law.

Accounts exist that tell the truth about the California Gold Rush. I found another one at the California Historical Society: California, a “Free State” Sanctioned Slavery.

California African American Museum (CAAM)

Another valuable source of historical records is the California African American Museum (CAAM). The museum collects and preserves artifacts, photographs, oral histories, and publications related to the history and culture of African Americans in California. The museum also hosts exhibitions, programs, and events that showcase the diversity and contributions of African Americans in California. Some of the current exhibitions include "Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture," "Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia," and "Sula Bermúdez-Silverman: Neither Fish, Flesh nor Fowl."

Library of Congress

A third source of historical records is the Library of Congress. The library has a vast collection of materials related to slavery and abolition in the United States, including books, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and audiovisual recordings. Some of these materials are digitized and available online through the library's website or other platforms such as Chronicling America or American Memory. Some of the collections that are relevant to black enslavement in California include "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project", "California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years", and "The African-American Experience in Ohio."

Other Resources

I also found this book called "The Negro trail blazers of California," a compilation of records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, in Berkeley, and from the diaries, old papers and conversations of old pioneers in the state of California." It was written by Delilah L. Beasley (Delilah Leontium), 1871-1934. Beasley was the first African American woman to be published regularly in a major metropolitan newspaper. You can have this book for a reasonable price: The Negro Trail Blazers of California.

Delilah Leontium Beasley (September 9, 1867 – August 18, 1934), was a historian and newspaper columnist for the Oakland Tribune in Oakland, California. (Wikipedia )

George W. Gordon, among others who worked to change the laws against full citizenship, was murdered. "One newspaper described George Gordon as a man of intelligence who had a handsome property. He was 34 years old when Robert Schell killed him. The coroner's report, newspapers and historians have written about the case," Black Testimony Matters (podcast).

This testimony is included in Beasley's book on page 49 of chapter 3:


  Several years previous to this tragedy, a colored family had moved to San Francisco, California, coming from Baltimore, Maryland. This family consisted of Mr. and Mrs.  Gordon, together with several sisters of the wife. One of the sisters opened a millinery store and Mr. Gordon a barber shop in the basement room of the Niantic Hotel, corner of Bush and Samson streets, San Francisco, California. The proprietor of the hotel was a white gentleman by the name of Mr. Fink.  
  The tragedy in which Mr. Gordon lost his life occurred as follows: One evening before dusk as one of the young ladies who had the millinery store was going to her supper in the rear of the store, she suddenly turned in time to see a man robbing her cash drawer.  She ran back into the store. When the man ran out into the street, she continued to chase him, calling ''Stop, thief!'' She was not, however, successful in overtaking him. The next morning this white man, who was chased the evening previous for robbing the cash box of the millinery store, went into Mr. Gordon's barber shop and demanded that Mr.  Gordon makes his sister take back the name "thief" she had called him the night before, while chasing him. Mr. Gordon replied that he had not been at home and had had nothing to do with the affair. The white man then began to abuse Mr. Gordon, finally shooting him at his barber's chair. When shot, Mr. Gordon ran to the street crying "murder 1" The white man followed him, and, after Mr. Gordon had fallen to the sidewalk, shot him again and beat him with his revolver. The proprietor of the hotel was coming down the street and recognized the white murderer. There was, however, in the shop at the time of the shooting, a colored man of very light complexion, a Mr. Robert Cowles. This gentleman witnessed the whole affair, but in order to rule his testimony out of court as a witness, he was subjected to an examination by a corps of physicians, who decided that his hair showed he had one-sixteenth part of a drop of Negro blood, and his testimony could not be taken. There was, however, another witness to be dealt with, and that was the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Fink, who had witnessed the tragedy. His testimony could not be disputed, resulting in this white murderer being sent to the penitentiary for ten years. Owing to the fact that the prisoner had tuberculosis, at the end of two years he was pardoned—dying soon afterward.  
  A white attorney by the name of Mr. Owens represented the colored family in court against this white murderer. This information, as stated, has been given to the writer by two different members of the Gordon family now living in California.  
  The Court's decision in the Gordon murder trial was depressing to the colored people then living throughout the State of California and resulted in a few public-spirited and justice-loving Negroes in San Francisco organizing the Franchise League. The object of this league was to do all they possibly could to have removed from the statute books of the State of California the law denying Negroes the "Right of Testimony" in the courts of justice.  
  The name "Franchise League," and the names of the members and officers were sufficient to inspire in all the Negroes in the State the confidence that it would be a genuine league. ' ' I am resolved 'tis more than half my task, 'twas the great need of all my past existence." "The Franchise League was organized August 12, 1862. Remarks were made by Messrs. F. G. Barbados, William H. Yates, Symon Cook, I. G. Wilson, R. A. Hall, Peter A. Bell and J. B. Sanderson. It was deemed proper to organize a movement of the people which shall be responsible to them with a view to action among them in securing from the next Legislature our testimony in the State. Mr. Wilson submitted a paper proposing a basis. It was quite elaborate; the hour was too late to examine it in detail. A committee of five was appointed to examine this and secure other plans as might be proposed." The foregoing account is taken from the diary of J. B. Sanderson, with the permission of his family.  
  Aside from the workings of the Franchise League to secure the right of testimony in  the courts of justice, the, following named gentlemen solemnly pledged themselves to go  to Sacramento and lobby until they were successful in having the Legislature pass a bill  which would repeal those portions of the Civil and Criminal Practice Acts which had prohibited Negroes from the right to testify in the courts of justice in California where white  people were parties to suits: Henry Collins, Alfred White, Rev. Peter Cassey, William Hau, William A. Smith, George W. Dennis, J. B. Sanderson, John A. Jones, James Brown, OF CALIFORNIA 55 Peter Bell, Mifflin Gibbs, David Buggies, John Moore, Symon Cook, I. G. Wilson, R. H. Hall.  
  The reader will more fully understand the work to be done by the Franchise League if he first reviews that which had already been done in an effort to obtain the "Right of Testimony" in the courts of justice, and the privilege to own land. The struggle for the "Right of Testimony" was long and difficult, lasting from 1852 to 1863. During the entire time the colored pioneers never relaxed in their efforts.  
  In the Journal of the Assembly under date March 22, 1852, page 395, the writer has found the following: "Mr. Canny presented a petition from Free Negroes of San Francisco praying a change in the laws to authorize them to give testimony against white men.  Mr. Hammond offered the following resolution: 'Resolved that the House, having heard the petition read, do decline to receive it or entertain any petition upon such subject from such source.' The resolution passed by a vote of 47 to 1. " In the same Journal (page 159) the following appears: "Mr. Peachy introduced a memorial from citizens of South Carolina and Florida, in reference to their removing to the State of California and bringing their (slaves) property. Mr. Miller moved to refer to the special committee of thirteen and those five hundred copies be printed." This resolution was enough to discourage almost any other body of men except the Negro pioneers of California, who were just as active the next year in the same cause as they had been the year previous.  
  In Bancroft's California History the following appears: "At the Legislative session of 1853 W. C. Merdith, a Democrat from Tuolumne, presented a memorial to the Assembly signed by Negroes, asking the repeal of the clause prohibiting the Negro persons from testifying in the courts of justice where white persons are concerned. Instantly one member moved to throw the memorial out of the window; another did not want the Journal tarnished with such an infamous document. The chair reluctantly ruled the motion out of order, and an appeal was taken finally in the greatest excitement. The petition was rejected and the clerk instructed not to file it. " Even this did not discourage the Negro pioneers. They immediately proceeded to organize to fight it out and decided to call a state convention. The following is an exact copy of their call: 
  "State Convention of the Colored Citizens of California, Brethren: —Your state and condition in California is one of social and political degradation; one that is unbecoming a free and enlightened people. Since you have left your homes and peaceful friends in the Atlantic States, and migrated to the shores of the Pacific, with the hopes of bettering your condition, you have met with one continued series of outrages, injustices, and unmitigated wrongs unparalleled in the history of nations. You are denied the right to become owners of the soil, that common inheritance which rewards our industry, the mainspring of all human actions, which is to, mankind in this world like the action of the sun to other heavenly bodies. You are compelled to labor and toil without any security that you shall obtain your just earnings as an inheritance for yourself or your children in the land of your birth.  
  "The Statute books and the common law, the great bulwark of society, which should be to us as the rivers of water in a dry place, like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, where the wretched should find sympathy and the weak protection, spurn us with contempt and rule us from their very threshold and deny us a common humanity.  
  "Then, in view of these wrongs which are so unjustly imposed upon us, and the progress of the enlightened spirit of the age in which we live and the great duty that we owe to ourselves and the generations that are yet to some, we call upon you to lay aside your various avocations and assemble yourselves together on Tuesday, the 20th day of November, A. D. 1855, in the city of Sacramento, at 10 A. M., for the purpose of devising the most judicious and effectual ways and means to obtain our inalienable rights and privileges in California.  
  "All of which is most respectfully submitted and signed.  
  "JAMES CARTER, Sacramento"
  "J. H. TOWNSEND, San Francisco"
   PETE R ANDERSON, San Francisco
  "WILLIA M H. NBWBY, San Francisco 
  "D. W. RUGGLES, San Francisco" 
   J. B. SANDERSON, San Francisco, 
   "The Committee, San Francisco, September 27, 1855."

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These are just some of the sources and resources that I have found helpful in my research on black enslavement in California. There are many more that I have not mentioned here, such as local libraries, historical societies, genealogical databases, and online forums. I encourage you to explore them and share your findings with others who are interested in this topic. Together, we can recover and honor the history and stories of our black enslaved ancestors in California.


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