August marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slavery in North America. The institution left its mark throughout American society, but lots of people don’t associate it with California. The state was admitted to the union as a free state as part of the Compromise of 1850.
However, the Golden State’s history with enslavement dates back to 1537.
California African American Museum History Curator Tyree Boyd-Pates said those details often go untaught in school.
“We see that there were Africans who were brought to this side of the country by way of [Hernán] Cortez, nearly 300, who would follow him during his conquest through Baja Mexico and into California,” he said.
By the time California became a state, slaves were a large part of the migration out west during the 1848 Gold Rush. Many arrived as indentured servants, hoping to strike gold and buy their own freedom.
The museum highlights several stories of slaves who won their fight for freedom.
“One of note happened to be Bridget Biddy Mason who was a formerly enslaved African woman...in 1851 she found out that she was freed,” said Boyd-Pates. “In the middle of the
night [her owner] sought to take her and the rest of his caravan through the mountains in order to retreat to Texas where slavery was still occurring.”
Sheriff deputies then served her owner a court order. Mason petitioned an L.A. court for her freedom and eventually won. She continued to work in the area, managed to save a fortune, estimated at $3 million, and became a local philanthropist. She purchased land in Downtown LA, and organized First A.M.E. Church, the oldest African American Church in the city.
Boyd-Pates said legacy of slavery in California is still visible today.
“There’s an area called the Negro bar which was a major mining area, where a lot of African people were mining for gold and that could be found near Sacramento. And this is just all things that kind of go ignored.”
The vestiges of enslavement are evident throughout American society today. Boyd-Pates said he believes that continued education will inspire policy change to remedy the disadvantages that people of African descent still face because of enslavement that started in California nearly five centuries ago.