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Equality Before the Law: California Black Convention Activism, 1855-65


AME Church in Sacramento, California, where many Colored Conventions were held. Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California. Link

San Francisco's Black newspaper, The Elevator," chose "Equality before the Law," as its defining masthead phrase.  Four State Conventions for Colored Citizens held in California between 1855 and 1865 prioritized issues of legal justice for Blacks seeking to build new communities in the gold rush state.  For the Occidental College class that created this exhibit and were reading these convention minutes in 2016, the protracted Black struggle for legal justice stood out as the necessary focus of this exhibit.  "Equality Before the Law" is thus centered on the petition drive they organized to push California's legislature to overturn race-based testimony exclusion in the courts; yet it also considers many other aspects of Black political activity in California.  Mobility and migration were shared experiences of California Black activists who brought their skills and social networks from elsewhere into their California communities.  Institution building of churches, schools and mutual aid societies created a foundation for political activism within Black communities who represented only 1 percent of the total state population in 1860.  Black newspaper such as Mirror of the TimesThe Pacific Appeal, and The Elevator, carried news of the conventions, linked together communities, and created a literary culture among California's African American residents.  Women proved to be key figures in both institution building and the Colored Conventions movement through their extensive work as fundraisers.  This exhibit draws from the work of scholars such as Psyche Williams-Forson, Erica Ball, and Eric Gardner, who have broadened our vision of Black convention politics beyond the formal proceedings of male delegates to the entire support system that enabled the Colored Convention movement to thrive. 

Despite the boosterism of eastern newspapers, Black migrants with hopes for a new start free of the barriers of white racism did not find a promised land awaiting them in California.  Yet, the rapid succession of four California state conventions indicates how quickly Black men and women began to work together toward their vision of achieving economic, civil, and human rights.  As noted historian of the Black West Quintard Taylor has observed, the collective energy and creativity that African Americans poured into political organizing in California challenged stock images of rugged individualism of the American West.  


Exhibit Outline  

Use the right-hand menu bar to navigate the exhibit pages. The exhibit includes:

  • Rosters of convention delegates and committee assignments, where available, from the Sacramento conventions in 1855, 1856 and 1865 and the 1857 San Francisco convention

  • Analysis of newspaper coverage of the California Conventions, particularly of the petition to the California legislature to repeal race-based testimony exclusion

  • A set of biographies of delegates and community builders in 1850s and 1860s California 
  • Topical entries on Black men and women's activism toward legal justice and economic empowerment. These entries consider the gendered forms of political activism and the California's multi-ethnic population in which Chinese, Native Americans and Mexican Americans were also subjected to racial injustice and legal discrimination.

  • Maps and Tables using data from census, newspapers, and convention minutes that visualize the demographic context for Black activism, women's fundraising networks, and locations of critical Black institutions such as schools, newspapers, and churches.

Credits and Citations

Curators: Gabriel Barrett-Jackson, Emma Cones, Christina Delany, Lindsay Drapkin, Lila Gyory, Sydney Hemmindinger, Rosa Pleasant, Reilly Torres, Victoria Walker, Daniel Waruingi.  Created for Prof. Sharla Fett's History 213 Class, Occidental College, Spring 2016.

Edited by Sharla Fett, David Kim, P. Gabrielle Foreman, Sarah Patterson, and Samantha de Vera

Special thanks to Occidental College's Center for the Digital Liberal Arts and the Mellon Foundation for providing funding for the course and co-teaching expertise from Prof. David Kim.

The Colored Conventions Project proudly partners with national and local teaching partners and student contributors to bring the buried history of nineteenth-century Black political organizing to digital life.

Special thanks to Gale®, part of Cengage Learning, and Accessible Archives, for granting permission to host digital images of newspapers in its databases.

Special thanks to California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <>.

Occidental College, History 213, Spring 2016