Negro Rights Activities in Gold Rush California
By RUDOLPH M. LAPP
Long before the Civil War free Negroes were active in movements to improve the position
of their people in American society. Recent events of this kind are actually a continuum of
earlier, lesser known efforts. The nineteenth century free Negro also had his detractors and
his supporters. His struggles were marked by some successes and many defeats. Little has
been written of the leadership he developed, the campaigns he conducted, and the
frustrations he endured. While the greatest part of this story is set in the eastern states of the
North, the Gold Rush brought a chapter of it to
The Negro population of Gold Rush California was not large. They comprised roughly 1
percent of the population. The significance of their story is not in their number but rather in
the moral force that the Negroes were able to exert and the courage they displayed. Above
all, the account of Negro organization and their struggles against often insurmountable
odds testifies to the inaccuracy of the belief that the American Negro did little on his own
In the spring of 1850 the Daily Alta of San Francisco stated that in their opinion
most forty-niner Negroes had become free. The 1850 census supported this view,
of course, since slavery was declared illegal in the 1849 state constitution and there was no
provision for enumerating slaves on the census forms. The census merely states there were
962 Negroes in the state at that time.
Future research may provide a more precise statistic on how many of the 962 California
Negroes were slaves or free men.
The fact, however, of a significant number of Negroes in a slave condition in a state that
had excluded the "peculiar" institution provided the setting for the first of what can be
called Negro rights struggles in California. Had every Negro who came to California with
the promise of freedom been granted that freedom and had every slave who came to the
state without freedom commitments not had any freedom thoughts of his own, there would
not be any story. But masters did try to break their promises, and slaves did decide to strike
for freedom in Gold Rush California.
The fugitive slave fights in the early months and years did not seem to be associated with
carefully laid plans by well organized groups. Rather they were a blend of personal
courage, aid from unknown free Negroes, and legal help from local sympathetic lawyers
and judges. Perhaps the most important catalytic agent in every case was the free Negro
who told his black brother that in California he had a legal chance for freedom. One of the
earliest cases occurred in San Jose in February, 1850. It came to the attention of the
authorities as a street brawl in which a white man was beating a Negro with a club. Cries of
shame were reported from the crowd, and the marshal took both parties into custody. The
court proceedings revealed that the white man claimed the Negro as his slave and
complained that his contact with the free Negroes of San Jose had spoiled him to the point
where he refused to be obedient property and leave the city with his master. The alcalde
ruled in favor of the master. With the assistance of the local authorities, the Negro was
spirited away in time to avoid a writ that several friendly lawyers brought too late to the
Cornelius Cole, the venerable early Californian, thought in later days that he and Judge
Crocker were the only members of the legal profession in Sacramento who came to the
defense of the Negro. His memory was not too good in this matter because there were
others that he was associated with in court cases. In Sacramento only a few months after
the unhappy San Jose case, another street brawl involving a Negro named Charles resulted
in another fugitive slave case. In this instance the judge set the Negro free. He pointed out
to the presumed master that the laws passed before as well as after the American conquest
of California made Charles a free man. One of the attorneys for the Negro was Joseph
Winans who was to be involved again in fugitive slave matters and to become one of the
outstanding members of the legal fraternity in the state. He has been described as the "first
scholar of the Bar!"
The next important case occurred in a court in San Francisco in March, 1851. A Missourian
had brought to the mines a "yellow boy," as the newspapers described him, named Frank
who decided in the atmosphere of the Sierras to ran away. His master tracked him down
and had him confined preparatory to returning to Missouri. In San Francisco legal aid was
provided by attorney S. W Holladay, and a writ was presented to Judge Morrison to set
him free. Judge Morrison, after a few days' deliberation, set Frank free claiming that
California laws supported his decision and that the National Fugitive Slave Law was not
involved. His reasoning was that Frank did not come to California as a fugitive. His
running away activities began within the boundaries of the state which were not offenses in
California law. The judge must have had a sardonic sense of humor, for he continued in his
decision to pour a bit of salt on the wounded feelings of the pro-slavery listeners. It
seems that in the course of interrogation Frank had stated that he had been a slave in
Missouri. The judge calmly rejected this bit of testimony because the California state
legislature had only the year before made Negro testimony illegal in civil and cases! This
case was notable in another way. It seems that the Negro community of San Francisco was
noticeably involved in its outcome. This may have been the first stimulus to active
It soon became apparent that slave owners who were tarrying too long in California were in
danger of losing their property. If the word got around, Judge Morrison's court could
become quite busy.
In the first month of 1852 a champion for the slave owner emerged. He was Assemblyman
Henry A. Crabb, a Southern aristocrat, who gained a tragic fame a few years later by
losing his life in a Sonoran filibustering adventure. Crabb introduced a fugitive slave bill in
January, 1852, that gave white men arbitrary powers in returning Negroes whom they
claimed as slaves in Southern states. Assemblyman Ellis of San Francisco had the
suspicious feeling that a portion of this bill was so written in order to allow slavery to
establish itself in California through the back door. Crabb's bill did not sharply define any
limits on how long a slave owner might remain in California. Ellis' amending proposals
were rejected. When the unchanged bill reached the senate, it faced more formidable
opposition. Here David Broderick voiced his apprehensions. He feared that the bill did
nothing to protect the Negro who came to California with the promise of freedom from a
callously capricious former owner or from some white man with the talents of a Negro
kidnapper. Through much of April, 1852, the senate debated the bill with Broderick
gaining strong but not quite sufficient support. The bill was passed fourteen to nine with
Broderick in the minority.
It was not too long before Broderick's fears were realized. In April of the following year
the first publicly noted attempt to return a free Negro girl to slavery was reported in the
Daily Alta. The attempt took place in Auburn, California, but fortunately a local
lawyer was the custodian of the young woman's freedom papers and could produce them
in court. The claimant was the son of the man who freed the girl, and he professed not to
know of his father's action. In Gold Springs, Tuolumne County, a Negro named Stephen
Hill, who had been free long enough to accumulate property to the value of $4,000, was
imprisoned by men claiming to be agents of his former owner. They managed to destroy
his freedom papers too. He was taken to Stockton where a daring escape was managed.
Some years later a letter from a white man to the Daily Alta suggested that this
escape involved a great deal of Caucasian collusion.
It was inevitable that the constitutionality of Crabb's Fugitive Slave Act would be tested.
The opportunity arose in what is called the Perkins Case. A Mississippian named Perkins
claimed through agents that three Negroes working in Placer County, two of them bearing
the name Perkins, were his fugitive property. A justice of the peace and then a county judge
gave the three Negroes to Perkins' agent. In the meantime support was rolling up for the
trio. Enlisted in their cause were lawyers Joseph Winans, Joseph Zabriskie, and Cornelius
Cole. This battery of legal talent managed to temporarily rescue the three Negroes from a
ship that was about to leave San Francisco. The case was brought directly to the state
supreme court. The pro-slave court upheld the entire California Fugitive Slave law.
It even upheld that section of the law that corroded the genuinely free Negro's right to
maintain his freedom. In 1855 that feature of the law was allowed to lapse, and the
California Negro was in a slightly less uncertain status. The odious section of the state's
fugitive slave law may have been allowed to lapse because it might have been believed that
by 1855 the problem no longer existed. But its lapse may also be due to changes in public
sentiment. The Methodist minister M.C. Briggs of San Francisco noted in a letter, "There
has been a manifestly growing change in public sentiment in this state, in respect of
slavery!" Just before the Frémont presidential campaign, a Missourian wrote to his brother
from Columbia saying, "The Blue Bellied Yankees are every day getting a stronger hold."
In 1857 even the San Francisco YMCA reflected sympathy for the Negro. They criticized
the exclusion of Negroes practiced by certain eastern YMCA's.
It was apparent that the California Negro had a growing number of friends in the white
population, especially in San Francisco and Sacramento. These were found largely in the
very young Republican Party. Of equal importance was the growing sturdiness of their
own organizations and their determination to act. A German observer noted that wealthy
California Negroes had become "especially talented" in stealing slaves to freedom. He
added that they "exhibit a great deal of energy and intelligence in saving their brothers."
In 1855 the California Negroes had a general marshaling of their forces through the
meeting of the First Colored Convention. It was mainly concerned with the right of
testimony in civil and criminal cases where white men were also involved. That the denial
of this right was a tragic handicap soon became apparent through the fugitive slave
experience. But as this issue gradually declined in importance, the problem of protection of
life and property rose. The need for testimony rights was a clear requirement for manhood
as well as for livelihood. The Negro whose wife or daughter was raped by a white man,
without white witnesses, had no recourse to justice. The Negro who was robbed in open
daylight in his shop was also defenseless if no white witness would agree to testify in his
behalf. There is also scattered evidence that Negro farmers in California were ejected from
lands they had cultivated because they could not testify to their ownership. At the heart of
this testimony issue was the California Negro's modest prosperity and ability to accumulate
material goods in spite of handicaps. At this first convention one of the delegates
announced that the property of the California Negro population was worth over three and
one-half million dollars. In all societies propertied classes have insisted on legal and
political protection commensurate with their wealth.
The struggle for the right of testimony began several years before this statewide
convention. It had its beginnings in a number of incidents in San Francisco. A Negro
barber had been murdered by a white man who was never brought to justice because only
Negro testimony was available. One of the most capable Negro leaders, Mifflin Wistar
Gibbs, was humiliated when a white man came into the boot and shoe shop that Gibbs was
a partner in and, in a series of shabby maneuvers, virtually stole an expensive pair of boots
while beating Peter Lester, Gibbs' partner. These, plus other factors, brought about the
organization of the Franchise League in 1852 which was primarily a San Francisco
The first effort of the league was a petition campaign to change the law in regard to Negro
testimony. It was directed at the state legislature and it gathered names from whites as well
as Negroes. The assembly received this petition in March, 1852, in the most insulting
fashion. Assemblyman Cannay from Placer County presented the petition for
Assemblyman Ellis from San Francisco in his absence. There were those in the assembly
who shouted that it should not even be read. Assemblyman Hinchman pleaded for
politeness in the matter. Assemblyman Crabb, the slave-catcher's friend, said that if
Negroes only were associated with this petition it should not even be heard. It was finally
heard, and then it was moved that a petition from "such a source" should not be officially
received. Hinchman's vote was the only one for receiving the petition.
One year later almost the same scene was repeated. The Franchise League had assembled
another round of petitions, and these were presented by Assemblyman Meredith. One
member of the assembly proposed that the petition be thrown out of the window. Patrick
Cannay, who was chairman this time, ruled him out of order and was sustained. He needed
to be sustained several times during that session when he had to rule out of order one
insulting frivolity after another. Motions to reject and not to file the petition were passed
almost unanimously. In referring to the behavior of the assembly, the San Francisco
Daily Alta wrote, "Our doughty Assembly may possibly have laid them selves
liable to the severest censure by the remarkable course pursued in this matter!"
Despite these depressing prospects, the Franchise League proceeded to organize the first
statewide Negro convention for the following year, 1855. Perhaps the league drew its hope
from looking to New England. While five northern states did prohibit Negro testimony in
cases where white men were involved, none of them was in New England. It may also
have drawn strength from the activities of its colored convention compatriots in the East
with whom its members were in correspondence. Many of these members had had
organizational experience in the Eastern Negro rights movements.
The work of this convention produced even more petitions during the following months.
More whites expressed their wish for justice to the Negro. In 1856 petitions were presented
to the state legislature from San Francisco, Sacramento, and El Dorado counties to change
the testimony laws. Support for such a change even came from the San Francisco County
Grand Jury. All petitions were referred to the Judiciary Committee where they died. The
judicial Committee was evidently not impressed with the fact that nearly three hundred
lawyers had also given support to this legal reform proposal.
The convention movement was not disheartened however. It prepared for another round
and another convention in 1856. The year had seen more white friends enter the struggle.
In fact, a great deal of its approach involved an appeal to the self-interest of white
men: there were times when white men needed Negro testimony. A United States Circuit
Court in San Francisco could not prosecute a seaman for killing a mate on the high seas
because the only witness was a Negro.
As one colored convention delegate put it:
I may see the assassin plunge the dagger to the vitals of my neighbor .... I may overhear
the robber of incendiary plotting the injury or utter ruin of my fellow-citizen.... The
robbery may follow, the conflagration may do its work, and the author of the evil may go
unpunished because only a colored man saw the act or heard the plot. Under these
circumstances who are not really injured and lose by the law? ... is it not evident that the
white citizen is an equal sufferer with us? When will the people of this state learn that
justice to the colored man is justice to themselves?"
The 1856 Colored Convention was to be the biggest of the three before the Civil War.
Sixty-one delegates came from seventeen counties. There were men of great ability,
talent, and education at this gathering. The topic of education loomed up as a competitor to
the issue of testimony. The California Negro community was sufficiently stabilized to be
concerned about the education of its children. The white school systems in the state showed
virtually no interest in Negro children at this time. These children obtained their basic
education through the work of the churches and especially the efforts of one man, Jeremiah
B. Sanderson, a Bedford, Massachusetts, Negro who was in effect the scribe for all the
Colored conventions. With evidence of regret, however, the 1856 convention kept itself
mainly to the single issue of testimony.
The resulting petition campaign rolled up another wave of strong white support. Petitions
were presented to the assembly the following year from seven counties: San Francisco,
Sacramento, and five mountain counties. San Francisco alone presented a petition with
five-hundred signatures. But in the assembly nothing happened.
While the testimony law had to wait until the Civil War before it was reformed, some
judges in San Francisco were beginning to receive Negro testimony despite the state law.
In an assault case in 1858 the defendant's lawyer tried to set aside an indictment because
the injured party was a Negro and his testimony was thereby rendered invalid. The judge in
the case so interpreted existing law as to accept the Negro's testimony. He claimed in his
decision that he was in accordance with "the common-law, and with the principles
of justice and humanity." The jury sustained the judge. As a result of this case a police
court shortly afterwards ruled in favor of a Negro woman in an assault and battery case. A
few weeks later an old Negro woman was able to obtain justice against a white man who
had beaten her."
The Third Colored Convention that met in 1857 was a bit smaller than the previous one,
and must have taken place in an atmosphere of depression. The Dred Scott decision had
been handed down that year, and in the California assembly there was talk of
anti-Negro immigration legislation. The Dred Scott decision had produced
additional problems for Negro farmers. As a result of this decision the United States Land
Office denied pre-emption rights to Negroes. This convention was, in addition,
distracted by internal problems. Forgetting to heed the requirement that minority groups
must be perfect in all things, members of the convention movement permitted themselves
the luxury, granted only to Caucasians, of jealousies and pettiness. They were never to be
quite free of this difficulty.
The subsequent months saw another petition campaign. In spite of technical difficulties in
assembling the petitions from some of the far-flung counties and the inadequate
funds sent from those areas, a respectable showing was made. San Francisco and
Sacramento counties came through very well as usual. Eighteen-hundred signatures
were sent to the assembly from San Francisco alone. A San Francisco newspaper noted
that "the number of petitions favoring the repeal of the statute disqualifying Negroes and
Mulattos from giving evidence . . . causes them (the assemblymen) no little uneasiness."
The petitions were again buried in committee.
Some unfriendly assemblymen could find new excuses to be antagonistic to the Negro in
1858. This was the year of the famous Archy fugitive slave case.
While the fugitive slave problem was virtually nonexistent in California by 1858, the Archy
case occurred because of the dull-wittedness of his owner in bringing him to
California. It took on spectacular dimensions because of the supreme court's decision that
legally Archy deserved his freedom. But out of kindness to his master, the court also
decided he must return to slavery. The press all over the state roared in ridicule, and the
Negro community, especially in San Francisco, was thoroughly aroused. The minute
details of the Archy case make for another story. Suffice it to say, that the aggressive
concern and involvement of San Francisco Negroes offended the tender sensibilities of
some of the assemblymen. It is not clear whether the militancy of Bay Area Negroes had
much to do with the rejection by the assembly of the testimony petitions, but it did have
some bearing on a legislative attempt to register all free Negroes in California and bar future
colored immigration into the state. Referring to the Archy excitement in San Francisco,
State Senator Merritt in support of anti-free Negro immigration legislation stated that
"he becomes insolent and defiant, and, if in sufficient numbers, would become dangerous,
as evidenced by recent occurrences in one of our cities."
This was not the first effort to prevent Negro immigration to California. An attempt that
died had been made at the constitutional convention. Assemblyman Crabb, who
incidentally in the year of Archy's freedom was on his way to meet his own fate in Sonora,
announced in 1857 that he would introduce a bill to prevent future Negro immigration into
California. It was not until 1857 that such a bill almost became a law. By a thirty to
thirty-two vote the bill was defeated in the assembly.
The year 1858 was a painfully dramatic one for California Negroes. There was to be
another more serious attempt to prevent Negro immigration and to label the Negro a
proscribed class. Many were to despair of legal relief and to begin to think of leaving the
country. The only bright spot in that year was the astonishing victory of Archy at the hands
of a federal official who was a Southerner!
The 1858 attempt to bar Negro immigration moved along more successfully than previous
efforts. While feelings about the Archy case were discernible, there may have been other
factors as well at play. The latter half of the 1850's in California was a period of some
economic distress, and the cities and towns had increasing numbers of former miners
seeking work. An antagonistic sentiment was rising against Chinese and Negroes. At
almost the same time that the anti-Negro Immigration bill was running its course
through the legislature, an Anti-Chinese bill of the same kind was on its way.
The anti-Negro immigration bill was introduced in the assembly in March of 1858.
Its provisions were harsh on Negroes who were in violation of the bill as well as white
men who unwittingly hired Negroes who were subject to its exclusion provisions. The
unwillingness of the assemblymen to modify the penalties on white employers of Negroes
in violation of this act lends strength to the view that the legislators had the general problem
of employment on their minds. Efforts to penalize a slave-owner who brought a
Negro into the state after the effective date of the law were, however, defeated. The
assemblymen were in no mood for moderation whenever this bill was up for discussion. A
partial explanation for this impatience may be that this bill seemed to come to the floor
repeatedly in the late afternoons or in the evening and that this session was in its last days.
The bill was finally passed overwhelmingly in the assembly and sent to the senate.
Uneasiness about this bill was more evident in this body. An attempt to postpone
consideration indefinitely was defeated nine to seventeen. State Senator Bell attempted to
introduce safeguards for California Negroes temporarily out of the state or members of
their immediate families on their way to California. He won a temporary delay on this
point, but the Judiciary Committee by a three to two vote rejected his suggestion.
Maneuvering came to an end with the passage of the bill twenty-one to eight. But the
maneuvering bore fruit. The senate included some minor revisions that required the bill's
return to the assembly for approval. The very impatient and partially drunk assembly had,
however, in the meantime adjourned. The bill therefore died.
Had this bill passed, at least two very influential newspapers, the Sacramento Daily
Union and the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, thought that it would be
unenforceable. As it worked its way through the legislature, these newspapers reported the
proceedings with undisguised distaste. In their view it was unnecessarily harsh to the
Negro. The Daily Evening Bulletin defended the California Negroes by making a
case for themwith some logicas the best of the free Negro
group in the United States. It saw some merit in preventing future immigration of Negroes
but pleaded for more kindness in treating the resident population. At least one outstanding
leader of the San Francisco Negro community took a thanks-but-no-
thanks view of this kind of support. Mifflin Wistar Gibbs wrote to the Evening
Bulletin defending free Negroes everywhere in the United States. He said, in part:
I appeal with pride to the history of the free colored people for the last twenty years in
every free state in the Union .... During all that time, notwithstanding they have been
subjected to the most unjust enactments and coerced by rigorous laws, pursued by a
prejudice as unrelenting as inhuman, disregarded by the Church, and persecuted by the
Statethey have made steady progress, upward and onward, in oral and
I admit the right of a family or a nation to say who, from without, shall be a component
part of its household or community; but the application of this principle should work no
hardship to a colored man, for he was born in the great American family, and is your black
brotherugly though he may beand is interested in its weal or
woe, is taxed to support it, and having made up his mind to stay with the family, his right
to the benefit of just government is as good as that of his pale face brother who clamors for
Even as Gibbs wrote this ringing statement he must have been having doubts about
remaining in the country of his birth. His letter appeared in the first week of April, 1858,
and in the days that followed Negroes in San Francisco were conducting indignation
meetings and talking about going to Canada. The anti-immigration bill seemed
certain of passage, and there was excitement to the north due to the Frazier River Gold
Accident in history played its part. Due to the Frazier River fever, the British officials in
Victoria found it necessary to expand governmental functions. This required a building
program that called for a large group of laborers. The gold rush had created a severe labor
shortage in Victoria. British sea captains who knew about California and San Francisco
events were in touch with Victoria officials and things began to happen. At one of the April
Negro mass meetings in San Francisco the audience was informed that they would be
welcome in Victoria and that there was employment and land.
The result was an exodus of several hundred California Negroes led by a number of leaders
of the convention movement, including the author of the previous statement, Mifflin Wistar
Gibbs. The convention movement lost another leader in Peter Lester who was Gibbs'
business partner. He is the same man who was beaten while they were being robbed and
could get no justice because of the testimony laws. Lester had his own special grief during
the weeks before he decided to join his partner in the Victoria migration. His daughter, who
was apparently very light-skinned, was accepted into an all-white public
school after examination by the board of education in San Francisco. This was found
offensive to some school officials, and an agonizing debate resulted. The board resolved its
problem at the expense of Peter Lester's daughter. This was too much for the Lester
family, and they headed for Victoria. There were other parents with daughters like Lester's
who had also applied to the white schools. Some of them too must have joined the Victoria
exodus. Most of the group settled in Victoria, but some went to the gold fields of British
Columbia. For many this was a vast improvement in their situation. The Negro community
of Victoria might have been much larger today if it had not been for the developments of the
Civil War just a few years later. Like most of the American Negroes who fled to Canada in
the 1840's and 1850's, the Victoria Negro community returned in great numbers to their
native land. Gibbs, who became an elective official in Victoria, returned to the United
States and received recognition for his abilities in the postwar period. Among his official
positions was the post of municipal judge of Little Rock, Arkansas.
With the departure of the contingent to Victoria in 1858, the convention movement seemed
to fall into spiritual and organizational doldrums. There was no convention that year, and
frustration produced accentuated internal bickering. Defeat was in the air notwithstanding
that the anti-immigration legislation never became law. An effort at independent
Negro journalism had just expired in spite of great sacrifices by its editor. In November,
1858, the executive committee of the convention movement issued a report in which it
announced that after much thought it had decided not to call for another testimony petition
until there was a change of political administration in California. This, of course, could
only mean that the Negro felt that his fortunes lay with an eventual Republican victory. It is
interesting to note that in this mood of depression Negro leadership turned faintly to
recourses suggested more forcefully nearly forty years later when the American Negro was
experiencing the bitter fruits of home rule in the South. Foreshadowing Booker T.
Washington, the executive committee report advised that
Pecuniary prominence, in a country so diversified as this, takes precedence over
intellectual, and it should be our highest aim to seek the end we have marked out, through
that mode which has formed a superiority....
But the report does not call for surrender. It agrees to conduct another petition campaign if
the California Negro community responds with sufficient vigor and funds. This does not
seem to have been the case before 1860.
The fortunes of the California Negro began to rise with the opening of the next decade. The
cause of the convention movement was assisted tremendously by national developments as
well as human factors. 1860 saw the arrival in California of the Reverend Thomas Starr
King, who gave Negro causes as well as other causes a great deal of support. In the same
year one of the major figures in Negro journalism came to California, and a Negro press
was soon born again on the West Coast: Peter Bell had been associated with the Negro
press in the East since its beginnings in the 1830's and was a very sophisticated and
Bell was a fine addition to the leadership group in the California convention movement.
While the exodus to Victoria had resulted in the loss of Gibbs and Lester, the leadership of
the 1850's had at all times contained an unusual group of men. Gibbs had worked with
Frederick Douglass in the antislavery movement in the East. William H. Yates, who was
the president of the first California Colored Convention and was associated with all the
subsequent conventions, bought his own freedom in Washington, D.C., as a young man.
Becoming a porter in the United States Supreme Court, he experienced an unusual
When he moved to New York, he became a Mason and was an active anticolonizationist.
He came to California in 1851 and became an employee of the California Steamship
Navigation Company. As a chief steward he plied the waters of San Francisco Bay and
was undoubtedly able to function as a unifying agent in the convention
William H. Hall, who was president of the Second Colored Convention, had an equally
interesting career before coming to California. In Washington, D.C., he was the fund raiser
for a monument for Benjamin Banneker. In New York he too became a Mason and was
active in that state in the campaign for Negro suffrage in the 1840's. Abner Francis was a
correspondent of Fredrick Douglass as were others in the convention movement. William
Newby had also been a western contributor to Frederick Douglass' paper. He was one of
the founders of the first California Negro paper, The Mirror of the Times. His
ability was recognized by the French government, and he was asked in 1858 to be the
private secretary to the French Consul General in Haiti. New Bedford-born
Jeremiah B. Sanderson was on the same platform with Frederick Douglass when the latter
was discovered by William Lloyd Garrison. Most, if not all, of the printed proceedings of
the California Colored Conventions are in his handwriting. William Wells Brown's The
Black Man published during the Civil War, which was a review of distinguished
Negroes in America included Sanderson as the only Western Negro. Sanderson had
worked with Douglass as well as with the Eastern Negro leaders, Brown and William C.
Nell. His great competence made him the foremost Negro teacher in California. He was the
most indefatigable worker in organizing schools for Negro children and gained begrudging
financial support from boards of education.
Most of these men were born free or had achieved freedom at an early age back East. There
were many who were active in the California convention movement who did not attain the
prominence of the aforementioned but were of its flesh and bone. A most interesting group
are those whose early years in California were absorbed with the back-breaking
business of buying themselves and their families out of slavery in the East and paying for
their passage to California. They should also be remembered.
In 1863 the State Legislature of California revised the testimony laws, and the Negro was,
at last, relieved of this disability. The previous year had seen the defeat of many opponents
of Negro testimony, and the assemblymen who tried to reform the law in 1862 were now
successful. By the time of the Fourth Colored Convention in 1865, Negro leadership was
turning itself to the problems of education and suffrage.
When victory had at last been gained in the matter of testimony, Peter Bell, now the editor
of the Negro paper, The Pacific Appeal, wrote:
we should be more guarded than ever against committing any acts that might be construed
by the enemies of our advancement, as a consequence of the repeal of those unjust laws....
We should be patient and conciliating....
And then he added with a remarkable quality of objectivity:
we must not always suppose that every offense that may be committed against us is
altogether in consequence of our color.
Early in 1864, editor Bell felt optimistic and wrote:
A new era has already dawned and it is with yourselves to decide as to whether you or your
children shall be made capable of assuming the responsible positions which already await
you. The Federal Government and the good and intelligent among the American people, are
endeavoring to help you.
Peter Bell had no way of knowing in 1864 that many generations of white Americans were
yet to come who would try to freeze the Negro in his subordinate position in American life
by telling him that he was trying to move too fast.
RUDOLPH M. LAPP, who is currently doing a general study of the Negro in California
from 1849 to 1875, is a member of the staff of the College of San Mateo. Professor Lapp
received his Ph.D. degree in U.S. Southern History from the University of California at
The research for this article was financially assisted in part by a grant from the Penrose
Fund of the American Philosophical Society.
California Historical Society Quarterly