California's hidden History
Civil Rights and African American Leadership Since the 19th Century
Story by Karin Evans
Susan D. Anderson, historian, author and Interim Chief Curator of the African American Museum & Library in Oakland, spoke on Friday, August 3, exploring a crucially important, but little known topic. Her talk—“Liberty Loving People: African American Freedom Networks and the Struggle Over Slavery in California,” shed light on the presence of slavery in California and the forms that resistance to slavery took. An expert on African-American history in California and the West, Anderson is at work on a book, African Americans and the California Dream: A History.
“We all grew up hearing about the Underground Railroad,” Anderson told the audience. “We think of conduits from Southern slave ownership running up north into Canada.” But slavery existed in California, as well, and the Underground Railroad was part of the way that people built their freedom networks in California from the start of the Gold Rush to the end of the Civil War.
Although the original California constitution in 1849, before statehood, had a provision that slavery would not be tolerated, slavery in fact existed despite that document,
Anderson noted, a condition that she has found well documented through court records, memoirs, first person testimony, newspaper articles and advertisements. There’s a growing body of scholarship, Anderson said, and stories of slaves are included in the work of Bancroft and other classical historians. Yet these stories are absent in the history that we are taught.
“People are not aware,” Anderson said. Yet both private sales of slaves and slave auctions were held in California. She showed slides of ads offering people for sale by slave owners. “For sale a valuable Negro girl aged 18” appeared in a newspaper in 1850, describing the young woman as “a good washer, ironer, and cook.” In San Francisco slave auctions were held on Market Street. They occurred in Sacramento, too. In many cases, Black people collected money, showed up, and bought the slaves in order to set them free.
In 1933 Mrs. Katherine Smith, an Oakland resident who was 96 years old at the time, told a story of having been sold as a little girl in New Orleans and taken on a ship to San Francisco. She got away, and was employed by an abolitionist, dressing in boy’s clothing to disguise herself. In Berkeley, a house known as The Cedars near Live Oak Park, was owned by a wealthy southerner named Napoleon Bonaparte Byrnes, who had household servants. “They were said to have been freed slaves,” Anderson said, “but that doesn’t make any sense. If they were free, why did they come with Mr. Byrnes?”
Up until the time California was admitted to the Union in 1850, there were battles over whether slavery would be allowed or not. “A large share of motivation to keep slavery out of California was to keep Black people out,” Anderson noted. Ultimately California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
“There was active resistance to slavery and leadership, Anderson noted. “No one struck out for freedom on their own. There was always a community working together and there were numerous freedom strategies. Some slaves mined gold during the Gold Rush to get the money to buy their freedom. Abolitionists operated through churches, including the Bethel AME Church and Third Street Baptist in San Francisco. The proprietors of Gibbs and Lester, an emporium for fine boots and shoes on San Francisco’s Clay Street, held meetings after hours, providing information about abolitionists, Frederic Douglass, and the underground railroad.
“African American history is a profoundly civic culture,” she continued. “That’s a sort of permanent feature of the culture that isn’t evident to the outside.” Black people join organizations,” she said. They join unions, they give money, they are involved in church committees on social issues, and the rates of voting are very high—“which always gets distorted in the news.”
Anderson told the story of Alvin Coffey, an extraordinary enslaved man from Missouri. Taken to California, Coffey earned gold to buy his freedom, but the slave owner stole it from him and took him back to Missouri. Coffey then made the trip to California and back three times, earning the money again and again. He was a cobbler, and pitched hay during the day and at night repaired shoes. “I don’t think he ever slept,” said Anderson. But in the end, he bought his own freedom and then he bought freedom for his children and his wife.
Slavery didn’t just disappear on its own, Anderson emphasized. “Slavery in California was undermined by the African American community utilizing a spectrum of resistance strategies,” she said. “I think that’s a history worth knowing.”
To learn more, Anderson invited Ashby Village members to visit the African American Museum & Library in Oakland. "We are in the oldest and grandest Carnegie Library, built in 1902.”
August Tours are available on August 11 and 18 from 4-4:45 p.m. and August 25 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. (sponsored by the Oakland Heritage Alliance, advanced registration required).
The Library is located at 659 14thStreet in Oakland. Phone 510/637-0200.