In 1852, the California Supreme Court said the state constitution’s ban on slavery didn’t apply to Black people who, “although persons, are property and without immunities.”
Many of us were taught that California was a “free” state and never had slavery. But that’s a lie. The abomination of slavery was not exclusive to states and territories in the southern and northern United States. In the early days of statehood, California passed a host of laws that allowed white settlers to enslave Black people and exploit their labor for profit. But that ugly history is nowhere to be found in most textbooks which promote the myth of a progressive California that was a refuge for escaped slaves. So, it’s little surprise that even Californians who were born and educated here have no idea about the state’s true past.
This month we observe Juneteenth, which marks the official end of slavery. That’s the historic date, June 19, 1865, when Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced that all enslaved Black people were free. It was more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But no one had told more than 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston that they could no longer be legally held in bondage.
Yet, what many people don’t know is that freedom wasn’t just delayed for enslaved people living in remote parts of the confederacy. There were Black people in California who were forced to perform unpaid labor until nearly the end of the Civil War.
In the last known documented case, a white man in Sacramento County openly held a 12-year-old Black girl named Edith captive. According to court records, a Black neighbor named Daniel Blue noticed that the child showed signs of physical abuse and neglect. Blue, a free Black man of considerable means, successfully petitioned to become the child’s guardian, refuting the slaveholder’s false claim that Edith had chosen to live with him.
In 2019, The ACLU of Northern California created a public education campaign, “Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California,” to expose untold stories like these. We wanted to use the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, to highlight the little-known story of legalized racial violence in California.
In 2020, California became the first state to create a task force to examine its complicity in perpetuating slavery and develop reparations for descendants of enslaved African Americans. Earlier this month, the task force released a nearly 500-page interim report detailing the many ways the state profited from Black enslavement. Then, once slavery was finally abolished, it describes how government officials at every level continued to create discriminatory laws and policies targeting African Americans. The report goes on to suggest ways to help remedy the resulting inequities in housing, education, employment and the legal system, among other facets of life.
The story of slavery in California begins with the Gold Rush. In 1848, gold was discovered in Coloma, in northern California, ushering in an era of mass migration. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world headed West, hoping to make their fortunes. White southerners came with enslaved people, forcing them to leave their families behind to dig for gold, work as domestics and perform other free labor.
Two years later, in large part because of the lucrative gold discoveries, California was granted statehood. It came into the Union under the Compromise of 1850, a convoluted set of bills concocted by the Congress that were designed to keep the peace between slave and free states and prevent the contentious issue of slavery from breaking up the Union. California was admitted as a free state and its new constitution supposedly enshrined this position into state law: “neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.”
But that legal language belied the political environment. White southerners and their pro-slavery allies quickly got a stranglehold over the new legislature, the courts and local government. State officials ignored the slavery ban. And in fact, they did everything in their power to stop Black people from freeing themselves.
As a supposed free state, California was an outlier in its undisguised friendliness to southern slaveholding interests.
State lawmakers even went so far as to pass their own version of the federal Fugitive Slave Act (the law compelling all government agencies and private citizens to help enslavers hunt and recapture Black people who had escaped from bondage). Why? The federal law only pertained to those who had escaped from a slave state to a free one. But Black people who took their freedom in California had not crossed any state lines. And they were winning their legal cases in court when white enslavers tried to appeal to the authorities for the return of their human “property.” This of course infuriated the slaveholders.
So, the California Supreme Court passed a law declaring that any Black person who came to California as an enslaved person before official statehood in 1850 was the legal property of their enslaver and not entitled to freedom.
In an odious 1852 ruling, in re Perkins, the state supreme court opined that the constitution’s slavery ban was merely a “declaration of principle” that was never intended to grant freedom to enslaved Black people.
The California founders’ hostility to anyone who wasn’t white was on clear display from the beginning. Peter Burnett, the state’s first governor, tried unsuccessfully to ban Black migration to the state and encouraged the extermination of Indigenous people.
The legislature passed testimony laws that barred Black, Indigenous (and later Chinese) people from testifying against white defendants in criminal and civil matters. As a result, white murderers sometimes escaped justice.
Our ACLU Podcast, Gold Chains, examines a pivotal case in which a white man shot and killed a prominent Black businessman in an unprovoked racist attack. The killer got away with first-degree murder because the judge refused to allow a Black eyewitness to take the stand. The episode highlights the religious leaders, newspaper editors, entrepreneurs and other African Americans who mounted a 12-year campaign to repeal the testimony laws. Known as the Colored Conventions, it was one of the earliest examples of organized, Black-led civil rights activism in the country.
Here in California, because of our miseducation, we mistakenly believe that slavery was something that happened far away. As we commemorate Juneteenth, we are called to examine the truth of our own state’s buried slavery history. Let us celebrate the courageous activism of the many enslaved and free Black Californians who fought to abolish slavery and claim full citizenship for themselves and future generations.