Monday, March 5, 2007

California’s African American Slavery: Where Has This Been Hiding?

Slavery of African Americans in California? No, California’s history is one of friars, missions, the Donner Party, miners, the Gold Rush, and the 1906 Earthquake. Correct? Many people believe California to have been a state exempt from the polarizing issue that tore a nation apart in a horrific war between friends and brothers. Despite the best intentions of the population at large to place California in an exempted and angelic position above the controversial issue of slavery there remains the fact that California was in fact a pivotal player in the debate over the institution. As University of Massachusetts professor and noted historical author, Leonard L. Richards, writes in his recently released book The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (pictured at left), California’s past held much more then people give it credit for having sat as the corner stone for numerous senatorial debates over the admittance of states as either free or slave in the nation of the United States of America.

In a recent article by New York based freelance writer Claire Lui, appearing in the publication American Heritage Magazine published on Tuesday, February 27 she describes the economic, legal, and political approach of Richards’s book in which he focuses on, as Lui describes as, the “dehumanizing” Senate and House debates that took place on the status of admittance of California and other states in to the union. Continuing her review of Richards’s book Lui draws attention to the fact that he leaves out both the abolitionist and slave views by stating that Richards “captures the reasoning and thinking of prominent white Californians” excluding the “moral issue” of slavery. She states that by reading the book she began to view slavery as an economic, legal, and political issue not as an institution that was repressive and damaging to an entire race of people. She began to see the numbers not the faces that made up the labor system. Richards’s book and Lui’s article triggered intriguing questions as to the nature of slavery and California: when it is addressed and how do individuals address it.

Through a thorough and broad exploration of the sources available on the internet using numerous search engines to investigate the role of slavery in California’s history produce limited successful results. The main focus of much of the search results produced is a similar slant that Richards takes in The California Gold Rush of a governmental debate over an issue that does not address the moral aspects of the debate, but strongly concentrates on political and economic elements of California’s history. It is more concerned with the status of California as a free state upon admittance (as pictured on the right of an 1850 map where California is pictured as a free state in red) than the slavery that was taking place. For example, in an article written by Dr. Rockwell D. Hunt for The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco entitled How California Came to Be Admitted, Dr. Hunt stays far removed from the moral issue of slavery, but addresses it from the political perspective of history. There exists little to no information of the actual individuals who were a present part of California’s slave history. The source that is available that comes the closest to helping to satisfying the historical need to help to deal with the matter of slavery in California’s history is the website The California Underground Railroad presented by California State University, Sacramento’s Library on which they have several primary sources and images available concentrating on the topic of slavery in California.

The alarmingly low number of resources available on the internet to a digital population on the topic of African American slavery in California’s history speaks to what Claire Lui described in her article as the concept that Richards “has added” to California history which is how many people will view this book. However, California did not suddenly gain a new aspect of its history the slavery of African Americans was always there. A more appropriate description of what Richards has done, with the writing and publication of his book, is that he has brought to the surface a matter that has been overshadowed by the miners (pictured at left is the typical face of California's history) and missions in California’s history. Hopefully with that addition of Richard’s book and the realization that California’s history is not so very different from those states in the heart of the South and the North during the Civil War that there will become a wider array of sources on the topic of African American slavery in California. With the addition of those sources on African American slavery in California there will develop a perspective and a voice of both the slaves and abolitionists who were as much a part of the debates as the economic, legal, and political issues of the day. They were the moral opposition contingent and they need to be acknowledged to have complete history of the topic. The fact remains that yes, there was slavery in California.


Rhona said...

Good post.

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