Black Male Leadership in California

Article in the Pacific Appeal, 'The Colored Men of California"

"The Colored Men of California," Pacific Appeal, dated May 23, 1863.  California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California, Riverside, <>.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, African Americans came to California to embrace the ascribed qualities of the American West: individualism, economic equality, freedom and democracy.[1] However, when Black people arrived they instead found restrictions similar to those found in the East.[2]  Although individualism may have brought them to California, once there they formed a collective ethos that would shape their identity as Black citizens in California.  At the first California State Colored Convention in 1855, delegate Jeremiah Sanderson spoke eloquently about the Black plight in California:

"We are scattered over the State in small numbers; the laws scarcely recognizing us; public sentiment is prejudiced against us; we are misunderstood, and misrepresented; it was needful that we should meet, communicate, and confer with each other upon some plan of representing our interests before the people of California.”[3]

It wasn’t until large numbers of US citizens started flooding California that legislators wrote laws into the state constitution that would prohibit Black people from full citizenship.[4]  The most menacing law, which was the focus of the 1855, 1856, and 1857 State Conventions prohibited Blacks from testifying on their own behalf against whites in court.[5]  Black people came to California for a refuge from racism and slavery that permeated eastern states only to find that California was no better at providing civil rights to its Black citizens.

The first California Colored Convention was initiated by prominent men who realized the dire need for economic and political uplift for Black Californians.[6]  William H. Yates, and Mifflin Gibbs, two men with very different backgrounds, served as leaders at the 1855 California Colored Convention. These men, along with other less visible men and women, were instrumental in creating robust Black communities through establishing newspapers, fraternal organizations, schools, and literary societies.  (See "Map of Black Institutions in Mid-Nineteenth Century California," in Tables and Maps.)

William H. Yates, as President of the 1855 California State Convention was resolute about the need for unity around civil and social rights issues.  He noted, “We are to know but one purpose--act together for the attainment of one object.”[7] Yates was born in 1816 into slavery in Alexandria, Virginia.[8]  He had a reputation for being unmanageable with a “spirit of resistance against tyranny.”[9] Yates taught himself to read and write while enslaved. While working as a janitor at the US Supreme Court to pay for his freedom, he became well versed in the law. Yates came to California in 1851 via the Steamship Golden Gate.[10] Due to his first-hand experience as a slave and his knowledge of law, Yates became doggedly persistent in his efforts to secure the repeal of the anti-testimony law. [11] Yates’ activism and political leadership was noted in a memorial article published in the Elevator: “It is in California where his usefulness has been felt, and where he is best known as a public man.  All his energies, all his talents, and all his influence have been for years devoted to the attainment of our legal and judicial rights.”[12]  Yates’ virtuous personality made him an ideal person to rise up and fight for justice and equal rights for Black citizens. 

Another person who came to California looking for a new beginning was Mifflin Gibbs, a delegate at the 1855 California State Convention.[13]  Gibbs had engaged in political activism before coming to California.  In Philadelphia, he was involved with the underground railroad, which helped slaves escape to Canada.  He and Frederick Douglass gave anti-slavery lectures throughout western New York.[14]  Looking for a new adventure, Gibbs headed West in 1850, where he found work as a carpenter.[15] Gibbs was dismayed to see the many limitations Black people suffered even though California was a free state.[16]  Blacks were not allowed to vote, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act threatened many African American migrants with deportation.[17]  Gibbs worked with other delegates at the 1855, 1856, and 1857 Colored Conventions to gather petitions to repeal the Black testimony law.[18]  While in California, Gibbs served as publisher and editor to The Mirror of the Times, the first Black newspaper published in California.[19] The Mirror of the Times was a significant step for Black Californians to establish their own narrative about the Black experience in California. In 1858, fed up after the Democratic controlled legislature refused to repeal the unjust testimony law along with its introduction of a law to deny black immigration to California, Gibbs emigrated to British Columbia.[20]

The Pacific Appeal wrote a monthly column, “The Colored Men of California,” highlighting prominent Black men in California.  The “Introduction” column summed up their mettle:  

“Some of these men were born under the influence of slavery; some may have been slaves themselves; all have felt the baneful effects of that prejudice which American slavery engenders; all! all! have suffered that martyrdom of the soul which to the colored American has to bear when he aspires to a higher status that that of serf.”[21]

Black people came to California looking to conquer the frontier.  Moreover, some of these people became strong Black activists who worked to instill a sense of historical tradition and race pride to ensure that California would be accessible to everyone.


[1] James A. Fisher, “The political development of the Black community in California, 1850-1950,” California Historical Quarterly 60, no. 3 (1971): 256-266.

[2] Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier against Slavery:  Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 63.

[3] “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, 1855 (Sacramento, CA, Democratic State Journal Print).

[4] Douglas Henry Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: a Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia, PA, 1980), 107.

[5] “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of 1855.”

[6] Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, 106.

[7] “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of 1855.”

[8] “Memorial Sermon,” The Elevator, October 16, 1868.

[9] Ibid.

[10] C. “The Colored Men of California,” Pacific Appeal, August 1, 1863.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Memorial Sermon"

[13] “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of 1855.”

[14] “Mifflin Wistar Gibbs,” Greater Victoria Public Library. n.d. Web. Accessed 27 Apr. 2014

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of 1855.” “Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California of 1856.” “State Convention of the Colored People of California, San Francisco, October, 1857.”

[19] Delilah L. Beasley. The Negro Trailblazers of California, (Los Angeles: Times Mirror Printing, 1919), 251.

[20] Quintard Taylor. “Freedom in the Antebellum West 1835-65,” In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1998), 92.

[21] C. “The Colored Men of California,” Pacific Appeal, May 23, 1863.

Written by Tina Delany. Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.