Slavery in California
In 1850, California entered the Union as a “free” state, meaning the practice of slavery was not to be permitted. However, the legacy of enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans persisted in its founding statehood. Prior to the Mexican-American War, slavery was introduced through Spanish colonization. In 1537 at the port of Tehuantepec in Mexico, conquistador Hernán Cortés prepared ships with four hundred Spaniards and three hundred enslaved Africans to plant a colony and sailed north to the head of the Gulf of California. This is perhaps the first mention of slavery in California which persisted in the territories of New Spain along with enslavement of Indigenous peoples for much of Spanish and, later, Mexican rule.
In 1829, President Vicente Guerrero issued a decree to abolish slavery in Mexico in conjunction with the celebration of the independence of Mexico. American Southern slaveholders who lived in Texas refused to free their enslaved, and in 1830 President Guerrero ordered military occupation of Texas to enforce the anti-slavery measure.
In 1836, Texas declared itself a republic and adopted a constitution that permitted the introduction of slavery which also forbade free Black residents to settle without the consensus of its congress. Tensions among Mexican and American residents in Texas, border skirmishes along the Rio Grande, and pressure from U.S. expansionists led to the Mexican-American War which was fought between 1846 – 1848. It was the first U.S. armed conflict mainly fought on foreign soil, spearheaded by the administration of then U.S. President James K. Polk who believed that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to spread across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
On February 2, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. In the treaty, Mexico agreed to surrender all claims to Texas and accept the Rio Grande as the boundary of that state. By the treaty terms, Mexico ceded more than half of its territory, including parts of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, thereby doubling the territorial holdings of the United States. By the time the United States acquired California from Mexico, slavery had been abolished for nearly twenty years. California was reintroduced to slavery as American expansionist enslavers sought opportunities to settle in California.
The Gold Rush of 1849 saw a tremendous wave of American settlers to California. With that, enslaved African Americans were brought to mine gold by southern enslavers who ventured to California. The Gold Rush was an effective catalyst that initiated the process to admit California as a state. Before California entered the Union, the United States comprised 15 free states and 15 slave states. The debate over whether California would be admitted as a free or slave state stirred much controversy at the statehood conventions. For the most part, white settlers in California did not want to see a state that looked like the South, where there were large African American populations through the institution of slavery. Furthermore, white stakeholders did not want to compete with free Black labor.
In 1849, California requested permission to enter the Union as a free state, which would upset the balance between the free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a series of resolutions in an attempt to seek a compromise in order to avoid a crisis between the North and South. As part of the Compromise of 1850, California would be admitted as a free state. However, the Fugitive Slave Act was appended in which any enslaved person in the United States had to be returned to the enslaver by law, including California. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed on September 18, 1850 which required that the enslaved be returned to their enslavers, even if they were in a free state. The act also placed the responsibility on the federal government for finding, returning, and trying an enslaved person who has self-emancipated.
In 1852, the state legislature passed the California Fugitive Slave Law, legalizing the arrest and removal of runaway enslaved Africans who arrived with their enslavers before statehood. This was detrimental as many formerly enslaved people were able to work in California, build wealth, and own property before being “returned” to their enslavers. Also, if an enslaved person were caught in California, and the enslaver did not want the trouble to arrange for their return passage, the enslaver can auction them off to the highest bidder or sell their freedom at an exorbitant price. The practice of fugitive slave laws and its racist legacy has deep-seated connections to the culture of policing today.
5. Ahn, Abe. “The Lesser-Known History of Slavery in California.” Hyperallergic. April 10, 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/494309/california-bound-california-african-american-museum/
6. Anderson, Susan. “California, a ‘Free State’ Sanctioned Slavery.” California Historical Society. April 2, 2020. https://californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/california-a-free-state-sanctioned-slavery/
7. Francis, Candice. “Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California.” American Civil Liberties Union. November 15, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/news/racial-justice/gold-chains-the-hidden-history-of-slavery-in-california/
8. Special Collections and Archives at California State University, Northridge. “Delilah L. Beasly and the Trail She Blazed.” California State University, Northridge Library. February 19, 2019. https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/delilah-beasley