California Celebrates Its History As a 'Free State.' But There Was Slavery Here.

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Old black and white drawing of a neoclassical building with a large cupola surrounded by a carefully tended garden.
California's Capitol building in Sacramento, 1853. (Wikimedia Commons)

When we look at the California of today, so much of who we are is because of the Gold Rush. It’s true that people flooded into the state after gold was found in 1848, and that there were opportunities here for some fortune-seekers. But there are darker parts of that history we don’t often hear about. Some of those gold-seekers came from the South and brought enslaved people with them to mine for gold in California.

"I find it very interesting that we don't know any of this part of California's history," said Bay Curious listener Doug Spindler. "And yet this is so big and so important."

Doug came across some of this information while researching the Gold Rush era and California's recognition of statehood soon after. California entered the union in 1850 as a "free state." The state constitution says: "Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State."

But what's on paper is not the reality of what happened here.

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As California was filling up with gold-seekers, a Civil War about slavery was brewing in the United States, and 3,000 miles wasn't enough distance to keep California out of the dispute. Some of California's first leaders built their wealth by exploiting the labor of enslaved people. At the constitutional convention, many argued that California shouldn’t allow Black people into the state at all. There were fears that they would compete with white people for jobs — and win. While those voices didn't prevail, early state legislators showed their sympathy to the South in other ways.

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act — a law that required white people living in free states to help catch and re-enslave people living in freedom. Many free states fought against the mandate. Not California.

"California did the opposite," said Stacey L. Smith, professor of history at Oregon State University. "Not just cooperating with the Fugitive Slave Act, the federal one from 1850, but passing its own 1852 Fugitive Slave Act that essentially was a supplement to that federal act and pledged that the state would help the federal government do everything it could to help protect slave holders and not freedom seekers."

California's Supreme Court ruled that enslavers who came to California before it became a state — and thus was not technically a free state yet — should have the right to reclaim their human property.

Smith's book, "Freedom's Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction," traces California’s history of supporting enslavers and how that legacy set the stage for its brutal treatment of other ethnic groups, particularly Native Americans and Chinese immigrants.

Even after the Civil War ended and President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, California's representatives to Congress fought against new legislation to give rights to the formerly enslaved.

"California legislators really opposed the 14th and 15th amendments," Smith said. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to Black people and the 15th gave them the right to vote.

"There are all of these concerns among whites in California that Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans were going to get new rights, new legal protections and the right to vote under the 14th and 15th amendments," Smith said. "California was among some of the few states that really fought Reconstruction."

The legacy of California's early sympathy with the South and a litany of early laws that ensured people of color would have little to no power in the state are still being felt in the racial disparities we see today.

Smith, along with other Californians who have lived experience of this deep-seated inequality, have been testifying to California's Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The task force is specifically looking at the history of chattel slavery in California and how the state could formally apologize and make amends. The task force has been meeting since the summer of 2021 and plans to make an initial report to the legislature in the summer of 2022.

KQED has been following the work of the task force closely and will continue to report on the testimony and recommendations presented there.