History of Enslavement in California

As part of our Remembering 1619 observance, the Equal Justice Society is collaborating with Heyday Books, the ACLU of Northern California, the California Historical Society, and KQED on an exploration of the deplorable treatment of Native Americans and Africans here in the Golden State.

The highlight of our year-long observance is a “Remembering 1619” Artistic Presentation on August 20 at SFJAZZ (save the date on Facebook and Eventbrite). EJS is inviting submissions of artwork to be considered for a one-night exhibition as part of the artistic presentation. Click here for complete information.

As part of the collaboration, Carmen King, Communications Associate at the ACLU of Northern California, compiled the list below of moments, people, places, laws and legal cases related to the history of enslavement in California.


Stephen Spencer Hill – Hill purchased his freedom in 1853 and bought 160 acres of farmland in California. The man who formerly owned Hill, Owen R Rozier, tried to steal Hill back from California, claiming, erroneously, that Hill had run away.

Adam Willis – Willis was brought to California as a slave in 1846. He spent 9 years enslaved in California before his manumission documents were signed in Benicia in 1855. He then searched the country using newspaper ads to find his family and build a home for them in Solano County. His manumission documents are the Solano County Archive.

Archy Lee – Archy Lee was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1840. Lee’s enslaver, Charles Stovall, brought Lee with him to Sacramento, California in 1857. In 1858, when Stovall returned to Mississippi, Lee, age 18, escaped from Stovall and went back to Sacramento. Lee took refuge in the home of Charles Hackett and Charles Parker, two politically active African-Americans in Sacramento. Stovall had Lee arrested, but a prominent civil rights attorney, Edwin B. Crocker defended Lee, and in a decision on January 26, 1858, Judge Robert Robinson ruled that Lee was a free man because California was a free state and, though Mississippi was a slave state. Judge Robinson’s decision was appealed to the California Supreme Court, however, and on February 11, 1858, the Court ruled that although California prohibited slave ownership for state residents, Stovall’s inexperience and poor health warranted an exception that he be allowed to leave the state with Lee as his property. The Supreme Court decision was authored by Peter Burnett, who authored a bill banning African-Americans from the State of Oregon as a legislator there, and who unsuccessfully urged the same bill in California while he was Governor.

Plim Jackson – Jackson was released from slavery in Santa Clara County in 1854. The org, History San Jose, has his manumission documents in their archives.

Lizzy Flake Rowan – Lizzy was taken from her parents at age 4 and given to James and Agnes Flake as a wedding present. In 1851, when 437 Mormons set out from Utah to form a new colony in southern California. Lizzy was one of 26 enslaved people among them.

Alice Rowan Johnson – Alice was the daughter of Lizzy Flake Rowan. She was one of the first Black people to graduate from college in California. She became a teacher in Riverside- likely the first black teacher of white children in the state of California.

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. 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 in their home until they turned 21.

Robert and Minnie Owens – Robert was the grandson of Biddy Mason and Minnie was his wife.

Edith – Sometime in 1863, a enslaver named Harder had purchased a 12-year-old girl named Edith in Missouri and took her to California. By February 1864, Harder decided to sell the girl to Walter Gammon, a Tennessee-born farmer living in rural Sacramento County. Historical records suggest that she was the last African-American sold as a slave in California.

Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones – In 1852 in California, the three men were asleep in a cabin when a group of armed whites broke in, loaded the men into a wagon, and hauled them before a justice of the peace. The captives were declared fugitive slaves and ordered back to their former enslavers.

Edmond Edward Wysinger— Wysinger was one of the first African Americans to migrate to California from the American South. In the early part of 1849, at the age of 32, Wysinger and his German owner made the long perilous trip through Indian territory by ox-team Conestoga wagon to Grass Valley, California, by way of Donner Pass, arriving around October 1849 — the height of the California Gold Rush. Eventually he saved $1,000 and bought his freedom.

Williams Leidesdorrf – Leidesdorff was a major San Francisco (Yerba Buena) land owner from about 1844. He was born in the Virgin Islands to a Danish father and black mother, and came to California in 1841, after a residency in New Orleans. He served as city treasurer, chairman of the school board, and as United States Vice Consul at San Francisco.

Elizabeth Thorne Scott FloodElizabeth was born free in New York in 1828. She moved to California in 1852 and became a champion for equal education rights. She opened a school in her home for children of color at a time when public schools in California did not accept Black students.

Rev. Jeremiah B. Sanderson Jeremiah Sanderson was born in 1821 in Massachusetts. In the early 1850s Sanderson moved his family to Northern California and settled in Stockton where he thought his children would have a better chance for racial equality. The Sanderson family did not find the equality they sought. Sanderson became an activist in California. In 1856 he started the first school for children of color in Sacramento. He funded the project with his own money and other private donations since the state would not provide support. Sanderson continued his work in education. He was appointed principal of San Francisco’s first black public school in 1864.

Sarah Mildred JonesEarly Black schools established by Elizabeth Flood and Rev. Sanderson were segregated, as were later schools including Ninth Street’s “Ungraded School No. 2—Colored.” One of the earliest teachers at this school, Sarah Mildred Jones, became the first African American principal of an integrated elementary school when she was appointed principal of Fremont Primary School, located at 24th and N Street, in 1894.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs – An African American abolitionist who lectured with Frederick Douglass and helped organize the First State Convention of Colored Citizens of California in 1855 to fight for suffrage and equal rights.


First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles — It is the oldest church founded by African Americans in Los Angeles. The church was established in 1872 under the sponsorship of Biddy Mason, an African American nurse and a California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist, and her son-in-law Charles Owens.

The Cajon Pass – The Cajon Pass has played a prominent role in Southern California since prehistoric times. Indians, explorers, trappers, settlers, rail passengers and early motorists have all passed through on their way to or from the desert. This well-used passageway also brought the first African-American pioneers (most of whom were enslaved) into San Bernardino County.

Allensworth – Allensworth, as the town is known, became a symbol of hope as the only place in California built, financed, and governed by Black people. In fact, it was the first Black colony west of the Mississippi. A school, businesses, and a library soon replaced the tumbleweeds, and the land was quickly transformed into a bustling town.


Attempt to Ban Black People – In 1849, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, tried to ban Black people from the state.

First State Convention of Colored Citizens of California – In California, most convention leaders, including Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, Peter Lester, and Jeremiah B. Sanderson, had been Northern abolitionists and church leaders, and had traveled in Colored Convention circles prior to migrating to the West. Their goals were to end the testimony ban in court cases in the state, abolish slavery locally and nationally, and to gain (male) voting rights and access to public education and public accommodations.


California Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 –The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an Act of the United States Congress to give effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the US Constitution, which was later superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment. The former guaranteed a right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave.

California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 – The act “facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating at least a generation of children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures (1850 to 1865). This California law provided for “apprenticing” or indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites, and also punished “vagrant” Indians by “hiring” them out to the highest bidder at a public auction if the Indian could not provide sufficient bond or bail.”

Wysinger vs. Crookshank—On January 29, 1890, in the Visalia, California court case Wysinger vs. Crookshank, 82 Cal 588, 720, (1890), the California Supreme Court ruled that public school districts in California may not establish separate schools for children of African descent.

Compromise of 1850 – The Compromise of 1850 was a package of five separate bills passed by the United States Congress in September 1850, which defused a four-year political confrontation between slave and free states on the status of territories acquired during the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).

Black Testimony Exclusion Law – California state legislature banning Black testimony was a racially discriminatory, unproductive law that prolonged the path to citizenship for the Black community. This was one of the main legal justice issues that African Americans fought to change through tactics discussed at conventions during the late 1850s. Section 394 of the 3rd Chapter of an Act for regulating proceedings in the Court practice of the Courts of the State of California passed on April 29, 1851.  It stated that “persons having one-half or more of negro blood, shall not be witnesses in an action or proceeding, to which a white person is a party.”


There are echoes of the Fugitive Slave Act in today’s immigration debate

How U.S. Westward Expansion Breathed New Life into Slavery

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