A look at how California tried to ban freed slaves from the state in 1849

Ama Nunoo October 02, 2019
A 'freed' slave working at the mines in California, Photo: History channel

There have been several historical stories on the lives of African Americans after slavery. The freed slaves had to endure segregation laws and racially motivated attacks and made to feel like outcasts most of the time.

Many states after abolishing slave trade had a divided front, the abolitionists didn’t have any issue working and living alongside the free slaves, but the pro-slavery sect didn’t want anything to do with the freed slaves.

California also known as the Golden State after becoming U.S territory and the Gold Rush, had a lot of families relocating with their slaves to settle in the newly acquired territory.  There was a move to exclude slaves in the new territories which sparked a national debate among the ruling class in California.

Peter Burnett, California’s first governor addressed his fellow legislators in the capital of the state, Sacramento in 1849 after he had been elected into office and pushed his no free black people agenda to his people. The whole slave occupancy debate emanated from the top, his vision of the state did not include black residents at all.

“It could be no favor, and no kindness, to permit [free blacks] to settle in the State,” he said, adding, “while it would be a most serious injury to us… Had they been born here, and had acquired rights in consequence, I should not recommend any measures to expel them… the object is to keep them out.”

The Golden State was the first to try enforcing such laws. Oregon had its own black exclusion laws. These laws, all later withdrawn, largely succeeded in their aim of preventing free blacks from settling in Oregon early on, ensuring that Oregon would thrive as primarily white.

Eugene H. Berwanger, a historian wrote, “the question of whether to allow free black men to live in California was the only issue that inspired significant debate at California’s constitutional convention. Inspired by Oregon’s laws forcing free blacks to leave the state.”

Within the first decade of statehood, there were a few laws meant to restrict the movement of black people and people of colour in general. The laws were described as “appallingly extensive body of discriminatory laws” that stated the obvious; people of color were inferior outsiders.

In 1850, California discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill and many people including free blacks ventured into gold mining. The state presented many opportunities for people to make a fortune, but the whites were not ready to share the national cake with former slaves.

“Miners, who constituted one of California’s most powerful constituencies, worried that groups of black miners would pool their wealth and wield more influence than white miners.”

For the freed slaves the Golden State posited two things for them, a land of opportunity and an unwelcoming environment as well. One prominent freed slave who took an opportunity to better herself in the new union was  Elizabeth Flake Rowan.

A look at how California tried to ban freed slaves from the state in 1849
Elizabeth Flake Rowan, Photo: History channel

Though born into slavery, she served her master’s family even after his death. She took care of his children though she was a freed slave in California.

Rowan is known as one of the early settlers of San Bernardino who helped build a fort in the new state. She was a mother to the children in her community and helped other women as well. Rowan flourished as a citizen of the state working as a washerwoman to support her husband – a barber.

The whites at the time saw her and many like her as a threat and wanted the likes of her banned from the state altogether.

Burnett had other anti-black activists that envisioned a California that banned black people completely. The 1840s and 1850s, saw California citizens and legislators fighting to ensure that free black people would be prevented from settling to or relocating to California.

A look at how California tried to ban freed slaves from the state in 1849
Burnett in Congress, Photo: History channel

The new state while drawing up its constitution wanted to include in the laws a regulation that would bar free black people indefinitely. The debate even sparked personal rivalries among some the legislators which caused a deep division in the state at a point.

A  duel ensued between United States Senator David C. Broderick, an abolitionist and ex-Chief Justice of the State of California David S. Terry, a pro-slavery advocate in 1859 and the former was killed.

The laws never had a strong footing in the state even though people like Isaac Allen proposed a bill in 1858 that stated that black people who associated with the whites were proud and defiant.

He said integrating with white people “leads to foster the ignorant pride of the free Negro, so that he becomes insolent and defiant, and if in sufficient numbers, would become dangerous.”

And though their efforts to rid the state of the freed slaves eventually failed, they reflected the fear and racism faced by black people in the American West. The issues never really died out and though black Californians were “technically free they were anything but welcome.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 2, 2019


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