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Uncovering California’s overlooked slave past

Though California was admitted to the Union as a “free state,” slavery still existed there in 1850s.
Mary Ann Carlton-Wyatt shows pages from her family Bible, dating to the late 1800s, to Joe Moore at the campus library of California State University in Sacramento. Rich Pedroncelli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Californians like to think of their state as a freewheeling, tolerant place, one that entered the Union back in 1850 unbesmirched by the stain of slavery.

But Joe Moore says there’s just one problem with that sunny vision of the past — it isn’t true. Though it was admitted to the Union as a “free state,” slavery still existed in 1850s California, and Moore is leading a project to shed light on its contradictory history.

His proof is in print: in an 1852 ad announcing the public auction of a black man valued at $300; newspaper accounts of fugitive slaves who were arrested; and, county records certifying slaves bought their freedom from their owners.

Moore and a team of researchers have uncovered these and other, often overlooked pieces of California’s past after months of digging through the archives of museums, historical societies and libraries across the state.

America's lost story
“We believe this is one of America’s lost stories,” said Guy Washington, regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, who has worked closely with Moore.

“It doesn’t fit our image of California as the land of freedom and opportunity, a place where everyone can go and have a new start. We’re not comfortable with that part of our history,” he said.

Moore and researchers at California State University, Sacramento have been converting the documents into digital files, and plan to post them on the Internet at next week. When completed, the new online archive will provide insight into the challenges blacks faced in California of the 1800s.

“The story that’s being told is the diversity and richness and the determination of a small community in the 19th century,” said Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a history professor at Sacramento State who is supervising student researchers and is married to Joe Moore.

After gold was discovered near Sutter’s Fort in 1848, blacks joined a stampede of others migrating West, hoping to strike it rich.

For those early black pioneers, the state’s policies appeared promising. California’s first constitution, adopted in 1849, dictated that: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” A year later, under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a free state.

For blacks and others, California was “a place to come and reinvent themselves,” Shirley Moore said. “For African-Americans, California represented a place where, at least legally, slavery did not exist.”

But many found California a far cry from the land of opportunity they’d envisioned. Officials were unwilling to challenge slaveholders who brought slaves into the state. And other laws, such as one allowing people to bring slaves into the state if they stayed only temporarily, undermined the constitution, Shirley Moore said.

Using high-tech tools
Thorny issues were often determined individually, through court cases like that of Archy Lee, a slave brought to Sacramento from Mississippi in 1857. Lee’s owner decided to send him back to the South, but Lee disappeared, according to an 1858 article in the Sacramento Daily Union.

Lee was captured, and his cause adopted by abolitionists as a test case for the rights of blacks in the state. They raised money for Lee’s legal defense and eventually he was released.

The tale of Lee and others will be included in the digital archive through letters, family documents, court records, songs and photographs. Researchers have identified about 800 documents, though not all will go online at first.

To collect the 19th century stories, researchers are using high-tech tools. Armed with laptops and flatbed scanners, they’ve traveled to some smaller institutions that have been reluctant to let old, fragile documents out of their sight.

Many of the first documents included in the archive will be newspaper articles.

One, from an 1852 edition of the San Francisco Herald, announces a “Negro For Sale ... I will sell at Public Auction a Negro Man,” the ad placed by B.G. Lathrop says, adding that the price is $300. Lathrop tells abolitionists he will accept $100 from them — “a great sacrifice in the value of the property” — to see whether they will pay or “play their old game, and try to steal him.”

The articles also depict the struggles of slaves who tried to escape. One Sacramento Union report from 1861 tells of a black man arrested as a slave and brought to the city “in irons.”

Stories of individual families
Another in the 1854 Sacramento Union asks readers to contact O.R. Rozier, whose slave, Stephen, escaped from a steamer ship en route to Arkansas.

The Moores also want to tell the stories of individual families, through documents provided by people such as Celeste Rountree. Rountree’s ancestor, Alvin Coffey, earned $7,000 in the mines and used it to buy his wife and two daughters’ freedom, as well as his own.

“When I think of his story, I think if you put your mind to it there’s nothing you can’t accomplish,” said Rountree, who lives in Vallejo, Calif. “Here he is a slave, working to buy his freedom, and he made it happen just on sheer willpower and determination.”

For Joe Moore, a retired photographer, the project is the result of a lifelong interest in blacks in the West, nurtured by weekend visits to the gold fields.

The debate over California’s admission to the Union as a free state “makes the story more fascinating,” said Moore, sitting in his Sacramento office, where black-and-white portraits of early black pioneers hang on the walls. “Once you start getting into it, you become hooked into wanting to find out more about the people and the events.”

California State Librarian Kevin Starr agreed, and the project received a $132,000 grant administered by the state library.

Moore hopes the archive will become part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program established by a 1998 law to tell the story of slaves who tried to escape and those who helped them.

As word of it spreads, Moore hopes others will come forward and share family documents that are now in basements, attics and garages. At a conference on the project last year, Starr called it an attempt to “excavate the past and pay attention to it.”

“We can glory in the diversity” of California, Starr said. But “we’ve got some painful things to talk about. This ’From Slavery to Freedom’ project is going to deal with some of those things.”