California Cultures: African Americans

The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online), December 2016 | Go to article overview

California Cultures: African Americans


A select look at important areas in the life of African Americans in California history (see the full exhibit online at: https://calisphere.org/exhibitions/t8/califomia-cultures-african-americans/).

Gold Rush Era to 1900

Overview

A small number of people from Latin America of African ancestry and other African people arrived in California before the Gold Rush. A few were a part of the early explorations. A few others, like entrepreneur Williams Leidesdorrf (18101848), came to seek their fortunes. The biracial Leidesdorff came to California from the Virgin Islands in 1841. By 1844, he was a major San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) landowner and later became the city's U.S. Vice Consul.

The Gold Rush Era

The Gold Rush Era marked the real beginning of African American migration into California. About 200 to 300 of the enslaved came to work the gold fields, followed by 'free' African Americans (black and white miners worked side by side).

In 1850, when California joined the United States as a free state, the census showed California with 962 African American residents. Many of the formerly enslaved gained their freedom, but lack of government oversight allowed slavery to flourish in certain regions. In 1852, a fugitive slave law made it illegal for the enslaved to flee their captures within California's supposedly free borders. Thus, all African Americans in California born free or formerly enslaved lived under a constant threat of arrest.

Nonetheless, as indicated by the political cartoon "Difficult Problems Solving Themselves," African Americans continued to move to the West. They came not only from the Deep South, but from Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts. By 1852, they numbered 2,000 - about 1 percent of California's population.

Struggling for Rights

During the mid-19th century, even "free" African Americans in California were barred from testifying in court or sending their children to public schools. In 1855, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915), an African American abolitionist who had spent years lecturing with Frederick Douglass, helped organize the First State Convention of Colored Citizens of California to fight for suffrage and equal rights.

Despite their lack of equal rights, African Americans served in the military during and after the Civil War. Included is an image of an African American in a Union uniform during the early 1860s; an 1899 photograph show Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th Mounted Infantry in Yosemite.

African Americans won the right to testify in California in 1863; but the right to vote came only with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. The 1867 lithograph "The Reconstruction Policy of Congress, As Illustrated in California," show the struggle African Americans faced in being taken seriously as voters: they are reduced to a caricature in a political cartoon, along with Chinese Americans and Native Americans.

The Struggle for Economic Equality, 1900-1950s

Overview

African Americans made up less than 2 percent of California's population in the decades before World War I, numbering about 7,800 in 1900. Despite their small numbers, they maintained a sense of community through memberships in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and organizations such as W. E. B. DuBois's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and the California Association of Colored Women's Clubs. In other parts of the country, African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, head of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, were making inroads into education.

The Struggle for Economic Equality (1900-1950s)

Most African Americans lived in California's growing urban centers. Racial discrimination often relegated them to low-paying service jobs, such as the men in Anaheim's street corner shoeshine business or the chauffeur standing behind Edith Story and her automobile. But the 1907 photograph of businessmen, which commemorates the 13 th annual meeting of Oakland's AfroAmerican Council, demonstrates the ongoing presence of a Black middle class (see above photo). …

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