Art

The Lesser-Known History of Slavery in California

California Bound recounts a tumultuous history of mass migration, displacement, and litigation that led to the establishment of California’s earliest African American communities.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865 (California African American Museum, Los Angeles) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Despite its ratification in 1850 as a free state prohibiting slavery and indentured servitude, California wavered on the status of enslaved people throughout its early history, creating legal structures that allowed slave-owning whites migrating from the midwest and south to retain ownership over enslaved Black people. California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865, curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, brings together historical artifacts and stories of self-liberation at the California African American Museum to uncover the lesser-known history of slavery in the Golden State. Spanning from 16th-century Spanish colonization to the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, California Bound recounts a tumultuous history of mass migration, displacement, and litigation that led to the establishment of California’s earliest African American communities.

Mary Butler, “Pobladores” (N.D.), reproduction of a watercolor

While the exhibition focuses on the hundreds of enslaved Africans who were brought to California shortly before and after its ratification as a state in 1850, the curators date the earliest presence of people of African descent in the region to the 1700s and 1800s. Spanish colonization of the Gulf of California, which relied on the labor of enslaved indigenous and African people since the 16th century, resulted in a multicultural landscape. An early community of non-Indigenous people in California were the Californios, who were either Mestizo (mixed European and Indigenous ancestry) or of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry. Among Los Angeles’s first settlers, the Pobladores who arrived from Mexico in 1781, more than half of 11 families were of African or part-African ancestry.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

While the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 promised full US citizenship and property rights for Californios, who were previously Mexican citizens, the discovery of gold in the same year would upturn their lives and the lives of the roughly 150,000 Indigenous people who were living in the region. Between 1848 and 1854, up to 300,000 people entered the region as part of the Gold Rush, resulting in Californios and Indigenous people being outnumbered and claims to their land undermined. The mass migration of people included Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians, and Chinese, alongside free Africans who also sought opportunity in the west. Many of these minority groups, however, were exploited as agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and sex workers, while white migrants from the American South brought enslaved Africans to work in the gold mines.

California Bound goes into great detail about the political and economic divides that emerged from debates over California’s statehood and the legal status of slavery. It explains the divide between pro-enslavement southerners who sought to maintain the institution of slavery and the anti-enslavement northerners who desired to abolish it outright. A third political group in California, the Free Soil Party, also opposed slavery not on moral grounds, but based on the economic self-interest of whites who lacked the capital to compete with slave-owners and wished to eliminate competition from African labor, both free and enslaved.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

California joined the US as part of the Compromise of 1850, which also included the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as federal law. The new law required enslaved fugitives to be returned to their enslavers upon capture, and officials and citizens of free states to cooperate accordingly. While California’s entry into the Union as a free state might have been considered a victory for abolitionists and enslaved Africans, political realities within the state tempered any hopes that California could become a true safe haven. Shortly after statehood, pro-enslavement lawmakers passed statutes excluding minority testimony against whites in criminal and civil cases. In 1852, the state legislature passed the California Fugitive Slave Law, legalizing the arrest and removal of runaway enslaved Africans who arrived with their enslavers before statehood. These legal structures would set the stage for the eight stories that are at the heart of California Bound.

While the exhibition’s legal documents and letters don’t always make for the most compelling visual artifacts, the curators bring their contents to life by surfacing eight legal cases that resulted in freedom or enslavement for Africans living in California. There’s the story of Frank, an enslaved 18-year-old forcibly brought to work in the Sierra Nevada mines who later escaped to San Francisco and legally attained freedom with support from a local community of free Africans who petitioned on his behalf. The legal precedent in the case would shock the state’s pro-enslavement legislators and result in the passage of the state’s own Fugitive Slave Law in 1852.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

The story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason might one day be adapted into a film for the spectacular way in which Mason and her family were rescued by black cowboys at the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino. Biddy Mason, who was born into slavery in 1818, arrived in California with her family as slaves of Robert Marion Smith, a Mormon who migrated west to establish a religious compound in the state. In Los Angeles County, Mason befriended a free African couple, Robert and Minnie Owens, who were successful owners of a livery stable and cattle business. When Smith attempted to move to Texas, a pro-slavery state, with Mason and her family, the Owens alerted the County sheriff and gathered a posse of cowboys from their ranch to prevent Smith from leaving California. The ensuing court battle resulted in the Mason family acquiring their freedom, and the eventual marriage between Biddy’s daughter Hannah and the Owens’s son Charles. Biddy Mason would go on to become a prominent businesswoman herself, amassing a sizable fortune and later financing and founding the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, Los Angeles’s oldest African American church.

As can be expected, not all stories have happy endings, as is the case in the Perkins story. In 1849, three enslaved men — Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones — migrated from Mississippi to California with their enslaver’s son, Charles Perkins, who hoped to make a fortune during the Gold Rush. Having depleted all of his resources and fallen short in his plans, the failson returned home to Mississippi in 1851, leaving behind his family’s slaves. The three men were later granted freedom by a friend of Perkins and went into the mining business for themselves, finding success where Charles Perkins did not. After the passage of the California Fugitive Slave Act, Charles Perkins re-enslaved the men by forming a posse who stormed their cabin at night and put them in front of a Sacramento judicial officer who would ultimately send them back to Mississippi.

Map tracing the forced migration of enslaved Africans across the United States

California Bound also surfaces the ignominious history of Los Angeles’s early political leaders in the story of Emily and Maria, two enslaved minors who were brought to California from Missouri by the family of Benjamin Davis Wilson, Los Angeles’s second mayor from 1851 through 1862. In seeking out domestic servants at low cost, Wilson invoked California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850, which promoted the removal of Indigenous and enslaved African children from their families and imposed upon them indentured servitude. Acquiring legal guardianship of Emily and Maria through this law, Wilson and his family held the two women as enslaved servants within their home until they turned 21.

According to the exhibition, California’s position on slavery would become less ambiguous as the Civil War took shape. Pro-enslavement southern Democrats would leave California in support of the Confederacy, leaving the anti-enslavement Republican Party largely in control of the state legislature. During the Civil War, California would align itself with the North, providing the Union with logistical support and gold from its Sierra Nevada mines. While the question of slavery would be settled with the end of the Civil War, California would continue to waver on the status of its minority populations, particularly Black residents who acquired freedoms through the 13th Amendment.

Thomas Nast, “The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863—The Past and the Future,” January 24, 1863. Harper’s Weekly, vol. 7, no. 317, periodical illustration on paper

Just as the Free Soil Party opposed slavery not out of concern for Black people as human beings, the state of California, shortly after the abolition of slavery across the country, quickly passed laws limiting voting, property, and marriage rights for Black people and other minorities. Having revealed its true intent, the state would go on to establish itself as no less racist or more progressive than its southern counterparts. Leaving these truths as a bookend, the curators ask us to consider how this origin story of California might inform our understanding of the country’s political systems today.

California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Los Angeles) through April 28.

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