By Susan D. Anderson, Director of Public Programs, California Historical Society
In a late-night raid in April 1852, three formerly enslaved black men who had built a lucrative business hauling mining supplies during the California Gold Rush, were rousted from their cabin by armed white men. They were forcibly taken before a justice of the peace in Sacramento County who ordered them deported to their former “owner,” a white man in Mississippi.
Robert Perkins, his brother Carter, and their business partner Sandy Jones, would file the first lawsuit challenging the state’s new Fugitive Slave Law. Passed just 6 weeks earlier, it decreed that any enslaved black person who had entered California when it was still a territory had no legal right to freedom even though the state constitution banned slavery.
According to the U.S. history most of us are familiar with, California came into the Union in 1850 as a “free state.” Slavery was an evil that occurred in the south, far from here, or so we were taught. Yet famed for its liberal reputation, California has a far more complicated history.
In an effort to highlight this omission from the historical record, the ACLU of Northern California, KQED, the California Historical Society, and the Equal Justice Society partnered on a unique public education project, Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California. It features multimedia stories and archival research that examine this little-known history that was instrumental in shaping California’s complex racial landscape today. The history unearthed by the Gold Chains project adds to our understanding that no part of the United States – including California – was untouched by the pernicious system whose legacy manifests today in our laws, courts and culture.