Celebrate Black History Month: Black in California

I have often been told by friends and acquaintances that my husband and I were brave for moving across country to California with only one of us having a job and an under 1-year old child. We drove 3 days to get to San Diego, our first move. We got there in the middle of the night, after hours of being on the road. We stayed in random hotels (as we had been unable to find a place to rent prior to the move as the rental market moved quickly) as we hunted for a place. We ended up staying in a hotel for two and a half weeks while we apartment hunted; which in essence meant for that period of time we were functionally homeless. Now, worse case, we could have stayed with my great aunt at her pool house in Moreno Valley or my other great aunt in LA proper. It would have been a drive to work for my husband but it could have been done if we needed to. Honestly though, we weren’t overly concerned about how things would shake out.

California, while new for us as residents, wasn’t some great unknown wilderness. My husband and I both had traveled to California separately before we were married and did so again 2 months prior to packing up. I wasn’t even the first of my family to move west given that four of my grandmother’s siblings had made the journey before I was even born. It was nice to know that I had a familial connection in my new state and a support system. I also figured that, worst case, I could join a Black church to further establish roots here, as that is often a way Black people establish a sense of community.

Black Pioneers of California

By the 1770s, Black people had travelled to California some as soldiers, like the Buffalo soldiers I mentioned in an earlier blog, as part of expeditions to explore, and to do labor. Many of these early Black pioneers intermarried with the local Native and Spanish populations and quickly integrated themselves into these early settlements. These mixed heritage populations settled near the Guadalupe River. While many of these individuals came to California as free individuals, as California petitioned for statehood 1850 as a free state, slavery did and had already reached into the state. The Spanish had previously enslaved some of the native population and some Africans were brought as slaves by southerners to work in the mines during the Gold Rush and as general laborers in the Santa Clara Valley. That said, many legal actions were taken by slaves and abolitionists to use the legal system as a means to grant emancipation, and slaves were given their freedom in some of these court cases. The large issue with California statehood when it came to slavery was in 1852 California passed a Fugitive Slave Act that allowed any previously enslaved prior to California statehood could be re-enslaved as former slave owners could petition the court for their former slaves and, if they could prove they had intentions of return to areas where slavery was legal, could keep men and women in bondage while living in California. It gives California like many other states a complicated legacy when it comes to slavery.

While California was a land of opportunity for many, Black people were at times systematically cut off from that wealth legally via rulings by the courts, yet at the same time being allowed to make gains legally for equal rights and protections. For example, there were once laws that prohibited Black and Mulatto individuals from testifying in courts against white people. That is not to say that there were not successful cases of slaves winning their freedom in the court system, such as the case with Bridget “Biddy” Mason who successfully sued for her freedom in 1856. She would eventually become a rich woman, settle in an area that is part of downtown LA and co-founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church which still exists today. Black residents of California established schools, such as the Phoenixonian Institute in 1861 in San Jose that addressed Black education as California’s constitution did allow for Black people to attend publicly funded schools until 1875. In 1880, California eliminated separate school systems for racial groups but continued to allow separate schools for Asians, Mexican and Native Americans until 1947. These early Black residents had agency and support to challenge those who mistreated them while at the same time fell victim to racism in those same communities.

Confusing History

If reading this brief snippet of the history of Black people in California made you confused, you aren’t alone. Black people in California seemed to be both oppressed and granted great legal latitude. For every Mary Edmonia Lewis that got acclaim for their work, and invited to San Jose to showcase their talents, in her case as a sculptor; there is the sad story of Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones who not only lost their business but was stripped of their freedom to be returned to slavery in Mississippi.

I can only imagine what it may have been like to navigate that early California, to be on that knife's edge of freedom and bondage. I consider myself humbled to be part of the legacy of Black people journeying to California for opportunity and to build a new life, and I count myself fortunate that my own journey didn't happen until the 2010s. What I can say is that like today, even then California had people who were interested in ensuring justice; though sadly that pendulum swung back and forth often, which is also not unlike today. There is a quote from Dr. King that speaks to the moral arc of the universe, correcting itself towards justice, though I would like to believe in that quote, I do not cling to it. What the early history of Black people in California tells me is that we cannot passively sit by and wait for justice to manifest like some apparition, but that we must continuously fight, push and seek opportunities to make improvements.

Black Californians

African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County, book cover