Education for People of Color in California

1865 California State Convention Minutes First Education Resolution

California State Convention of the Colored Citizens (1865 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the California State Convention of the Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October, 1865.,”, accessed January 4, 2017,

Education played a pivotal role in political organizing for racial equality in California.  Black activists saw education as an opportunity they needed to become financially autonomous and hopefully to extinguish white racism through the assertion of Black respectability. Slavery denied Black youth and adults access to education. Even in many northern and western states, whites denied equal education to free African Americans.  Though it was not slave territory, the state of California in the 1850s and 60s did not allow people of color to enter public schools with whites.

Throughout the California Colored Conventions of 1856-1865, education efforts ranged from buying land and creating a school for people of color to proving to the state government that people of color were eligible to attend the public schools. The California State Convention of 1856 debated whether or not immediate efforts made towards education were necessary. Delegates in favor of these efforts stressed the immense necessity for education of Colored persons within the US. Early on in the convention proceedings, a Committee on Education was created, consisting of the following five delegates: N.F. Henry, F. G. Barbadoes, C. M. Wilson, F. Hatfield, and E. R. Phelps. On the third day of the convention the delegates proposed a resolution calling for the purchase of land in order to later make a manual labor college for Colored persons. Henry suggested that delegates should provide economic statistics to show the California government that Black communities were eligible and deserving of an education. Insistent that the delegates understand the necessity of education, Henry explained that this “would remove prejudice from the minds of the whites, and encourage the colored people. In this early point of the history of our State, we should commence efforts to secure to our children the advantages of education. ”[1] He then went on to say, “It is a source of pride and encouragement to me, that we have now amongst us men of talent and education, who have enjoyed the benefits and honors of Oberlin. Why should we not have an Oberlin here, in this State? There is now no school of that class; is it reason we should have none?”[2] Henry saw education as an opportunity for people of color to escape racial prejudice from white Americans since many of them pointed to the lack of education as a justification for racial inequality and denial of citizenship. Respectability politics played a large role in advocacy for education amongst people of color in California because they felt that education would help them achieve their goals of racial uplift. The idea of migrating westward represented starting a new life away from the oppressive slave states and taking advantage of previously denied economic opportunities. [3] Northern free Black activists had created preparatory schools for colored persons to go to colleges in the Midwest such as Oberlin. Henry believed that it was important for people of color in California to do the same. However Townsend believed that it was more practical to “hold off on these efforts and instead, secure the removal from the Statute Book the law which deprives our children of common schooling, and get them into the Common Schools.”[4] Townsend’s proposal promised people of color that their children would be educated, however this plan was not met with its intention. Although delegates all agreed that education was key to progress, they were divided over whether to prioritize manual labor colleges or common school access.

Following Townsend’s proposal, people gradually made attempts to get their children into public schools. Even though Townsend was looking more towards common schools allowing black students to attend these schools freely, some African American families in California were able to send their white passing children to these schools in order for them to become educated. In 1858, Sarah Lester, daughter of Peter and Nancy Lester, was expelled from her all white common school for passing for white.  In January of 1858, "the San Francisco Herald, a pro-slavery publication received an anonymous letter demanding the girl be expelled because of her race.”[5] A large number of her white fellow students defended her, and many colored persons who had white passing children in common schools spoke out against the school board. Parents of color claimed that it was not fair that their lighter complexioned children could risk expulsion even if they were high performing like Sarah Lester. In the end, the board decided that no students of color would be given the right to attend the common schools, regardless of complexion. In reaction to this decision, the Lester family moved to Vancouver along with a large number of African Americans. Considering these developments, was Henry’s proposal in fact more practicable then Townsend's? Townsend’s proposal resulted in multiple families migrating to Canada, which was certainly not a part of the plan.

In the 1865 California Colored Convention, the Committee on Education brought back the proposal created in 1856 with several modifications. At the start of the convention they discussed the Emancipation Proclamation and its influence on their lives as people of color in California. They hoped that the Emancipation Proclamation held the promise of securing equal rights and hence that emancipation would increase their chances of getting their appeal for educational access approved by the legislature. All of the delegates decided it was best then to take advantage of the law and create a solution for education. In the Report of the Committee on Education the delegates proposed the following: 

"To present a petition to the Legislature to so amend the School Law that colored children, by its provisions, shall receive the benefit of its advantages in common with others; and, Whereas, The School at San Jose, being already established, and in successful operation, requires the prompt and earnest aid of our people, as well as their whole influence; therefore, be it Resolved, That a contribution of one dollar be solicited from every colored person throughout the State of California to purchase the property of the San Jose School; and also, that the Legislature be petitioned for an endowment for the establishment of a High School."[6]

Education in the 1865 convention was more centered on making sure that people of color were given the same opportunities as their white counterparts, especially given the Emancipation Proclamation and the promise of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. In the Convention of 1856, they had been less confident about what the resolution should be but with the Union's Civil War victory, the 1865 convention delegates hoped that Reconstruction legislation would give them some form of protection.  The fight for education throughout the California Conventions served as a foundation for most of the goals these Conventions were trying to achieve, including building economic autonomy, establishing jobs, gaining civil rights, and creating a thriving population of people of color within California.


[1] Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California (1856 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, Held in the City of Sacramento, Dec. 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th, 1856.,” 148., accessed January 4, 2017,

[2] Ibid.

[3] William C. Nell, “Colored Convention,” Liberator, July 3, 1857: 108. 

[4] Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, 149

[5] Sylvia Alden Roberts, Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush (Bloomington, IN: IUniverse, 2008), 31-33.

[6] California State Convention of the Colored Citizens (1865 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the California State Convention of the Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October, 1865.,” 8., accessed January 4, 2017,

Written by Emma Cones. Taught by Sharla Fett, Hist. 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.