Lost History: Slavery in California





Deborah Kong, for the Associated Press (Feb. 15, 2004):

Californians like to think of their state as a freewheeling, tolerant place, one that entered the Union back in 1850 unbesmirched by the stain of slavery.

But Joe Moore says there's just one problem with that sunny vision of the past - it isn't true. Though it was admitted to the Union as a ``free state,'' slavery still existed in 1850s California, and Moore is leading a project to shed light on its contradictory history.

His proof is in print: in an 1852 ad announcing the public auction of a black man valued at $300; newspaper accounts of fugitive slaves who were arrested; and, county records certifying slaves bought their freedom from their owners.

Moore and a team of researchers have uncovered these and other, often overlooked pieces of California's past after months of digging through the archives of museums, historical societies and libraries across the state.

``We believe this is one of America's lost stories,'' said Guy Washington, regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, who has worked closely with Moore.

Moore and researchers at California State University, Sacramento have been converting the documents into digital files, and plan to post them on the Internet at http://digital.lib.csus.edu/curr next week. When completed, the new online archive will provide insight into the challenges blacks faced in California of the 1800s.

``The story that's being told is the diversity and richness and the determination of a small community in the 19th century,'' said Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a history professor at Sacramento State who is supervising student researchers and is married to Joe Moore.

After gold was discovered near Sutter's Fort in 1848, blacks joined a stampede of others migrating West, hoping to strike it rich.

For those early black pioneers, the state's policies appeared promising. California's first constitution, adopted in 1849, dictated that: ``Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.'' A year later, under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a free state.

But many found California a far cry from the land of opportunity they'd envisioned. Officials were unwilling to challenge slaveholders who brought slaves into the state. And other laws, such as one allowing people to bring slaves into the state if they stayed only temporarily, undermined the constitution, Shirley Moore said.


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