Many people may believe that California’s admission to the union as a free state in 1850 meant slavery did not exist, or that California was a safe haven for African Americans and other people of color. However, pro-slavery attitudes — and even slavery itself — remained rampant well after 1850. Here is the story of California’s last known slavery case, the state’s first Black church and how they converge with the unknown history of a free laundryman named Daniel Blue.
Celebrating California’s First Black Church
“Good morning, St. Andrews,” called out Rev. Philip R. Cousin Jr.
On a Sunday morning in late January, the church pews at St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church were filled with worshipers. Many have been attending St. Andrews — the first African American church on the west coast — for generations.
“St. Andrew's is the best kept secret in the entire city of Sacramento,” said Cousin. “We were organized prior to statehood, so that gives us a bit of a foothold here.”
The church was established in 1850 by free men and former enslaved people who had recently arrived in California.
“The first thing that was done was to establish a community,” said Cousin. “And at the center of that community is always a church.”
St. Andrews was founded by Daniel Blue, who was formerly enslaved in Kentucky. He settled in California, made a fortune mining on the Sacramento River, and subsequently opened a laundry. With this wealth, he bought a house next door to California’s pro-slavery governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett. Blue held St. Andrews’ first service in his own basement.
Blue catapulted the church into ground zero for anti-slavery and social justice activism. Out of St. Andrews, Blue and his wife, Lucinda, opened a school for Black, Native American and Asian American children, even soliciting donations from the public when the state refused to fund it. In November 1855, St. Andrews hosted the first statewide convention of the California Colored Citizens to develop strategies for legislation to advance the rights of people of color.
“In Sacramento, St. Andrews was able to pull together a coalition of people of color and say, ‘Look, we can go to the court and demand these rights,’” said Cousin. “‘We can go to the state and demand to be counted as citizens.’”
As the first Black church in California, St. Andrews imbued its anti-slavery values to other African Methodist Episcopal churches around the state. It all started with Daniel Blue, whose influence on California state history was revolutionary.
But Blue left another indelible, albeit lesser known mark on state history: He freed California’s last known slave.
Discovering California’s Last Known Slavery Case
Edith was a 12-year-old enslaved girl brought to rural Sacramento from Missouri in 1863. Shortly after, Edith was illegally purchased by Walter Gammon, a local farmer from Tennessee. According to court testimonies, witnesses said Gammon beat the young girl and left her without care or necessary clothing.
Word of Edith’s plight got back to Blue, who was a leader in Sacramento’s African American community. On Feb. 29, 1864 he filed a writ of habeas corpus in the county court, forcing Gammon to bring Edith to the judge.
Gammon responded that Edith stayed with him “of her own free will and choice.”
In response to Gammon, Blue requested that the judge grant him legal guardianship of Edith. The judge ruled in Blue’s favor, citing the slaveholder had “unlawfully and illegally detained and restrained” Edith.
It was the last known slavery case in California’s history, 15 years after California entered the union as a free state.
The Persistence of Slavery in California
“[This story] shows us the persistence of enslavement in California,” said Stacey Smith, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, who has written extensively on this case.
According to Smith, there is no evidence of how Blue discovered Edith, who was isolated in the rural outskirts of Sacramento. Smith attributes Edith’s freedom to the grapevine networks among local African Americans — like those who attended St. Andrews, which had become the focal point of Black political life.
“It's astounding that African Americans were able to infiltrate the household of Walter Gammon, figure out that Edith was there [as] a slave, figure out that she was being abused, and bring the case to the state courts to liberate her from enslavement,” said Smith.
Bringing Edith’s case to the courts wouldn’t have even been possible until 1863, because of a law prohibiting African American, Chinese, and Native American testimony in cases involving white defendants and plaintiffs.