Black Testimony Exclusion Law

1855 Sacramento State Convention Testimony Exclusion Law Resolution

First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California (1855 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California. Held at Sacramento Nov. 20th 21st, and 22d, in the Colored Methodist Chuch [sic].,”, accessed January 3, 2017,

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." The California Convention minutes from 1855, 1856, and 1857, all show that the Black community repeatedly came together to strategize on how to repeal this law.  

The convention delegates at the 1855 First State Convention of Colored Citizens all agreed that the law was equally oppressive to Blacks of all socio-economic backgrounds. Many delegates argued that the law was created with the intent of protecting white residents from the supposedly uneducated, immoral, and allegedly incorrect testimony of a black person, but this claim was disputed between the delegates. This convention concluded with several important resolutions regarding Section 394. They explicitly stated that all testimony that could help solve a case should be allowed in court no matter the race of the person bringing the information to light. One of their first actions toward trying to abrogate the law was to have a representative from each county circulate petitions for the law’s repeal. [1]

By the time of the 1856 Second State Convention in Sacramento, the law was still in effect and, for many of the delegates, its repeal was the only matter they wanted to discuss.  According to convention minutes, Yuba County delegate Jacob Francis "said that his constituents had sent him there more particularly to work for the repeal of those laws which deprive us of our testimony in the Courts of California, and that he could not favor any other matter until we shall have made some progress in that direction.” Despite the obvious lack of reasonable grounds for this law, convention delegates argued for its repeal in an exceedingly logical fashion. They asserted that any information that would help inform a case should be used, and Black testimony very often could shed light on how or by whom crimes were committed. Morally, they argued that California’s refusal to accept African American testimony was a stain on the state's legislature and that it was not representative of what the American people wanted from their government. Repealing the testimony exclusion law was a priority for the conventions.[2]

The 1857 State Convention held in San Francisco resolved to send the petitions demanding the law’s repeal to the state government. Furthermore they moved to appoint each county with a committee of people tasked with circulating the petitions for even more signatures. They also allocated funds to ensure that the convention minutes were published in San Francisco newspapers. They needed to ensure that there was media coverage of their petitions to repeal the law so that they would attract more attention.[3]

The Convention goers were not only defending their own rights, but they were also drawing attention to the larger issue at hand: criminals would likely go free because of a lack of evidence.  In the 1854 case of the People vs Hall, the California Supreme Court let George W. Hall, a previously convicted murderer, go free because a Chinese person delivered the testimony that may have led to his guilty verdict. Chinese people were included under the whites only testimony law. Black activists argued that eliminating testimony was relinquishing the idea of justice. A jury could not make an informed decision without looking at all of the evidence and testimony of people of color, often times, provided valuable evidence. In the case of the People vs Hall, the testimony exclusion law vilified the witness and allowed the criminal to go unpunished. [4]

Businessman and activist Peter Lester left the United States because of how California's racially disciminatory laws directly affected him. Lester owned a successful shoe business that was broken into by two white men who assaulted Lester and stole his store’s merchandise. These white men were never incarcerated for their crimes because Lester, a Black man, was not allowed to testify.[5] This was not the first time Lester had had a negative experience with this law, but by this time it was too much. He decided to move to British Columbia as a result of the unfair treatment of Blacks in the United States. Lester was not alone in this. Starting in 1858, about 10% of the Black population of California left the country for Canada because of racially discriminatory legislation. [6]

The ability to testify was a vital issue to the California State Colored Conventions because in order for African Americans to stand equally before the law, their voices had to be heard in court. Without the ability to defend oneself in a court of law, an individual could not feel that the law was there to protect them. Testimony was of the utmost importance to the convention delegates and their communities because they needed to be able to protect their property. Peter Lester was robbed and assaulted and never received proper compensation, at the very least, to replace the merchandise that had been stolen from his store. Furthermore, the Conventions regarded property and wealth as a signifier of independence that they need to claim citizenship. Delegates of the convention sought to gain American citizenship for Blacks and this would not be possible without the repeal of the whites only testimony law. The Constitution granted citizens of the United States the right to have their day in court, so without this right Blacks would not be able to obtain full citizenship.

[1] First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California (1855 : Sacramento, CA), “Proceedings of the First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California. Held at Sacramento Nov. 20th 21st, and 22d, in the Colored Methodist Chuch [sic].,” 9-10., accessed January 3, 2017,

[2] 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.,” 135., accessed January 3, 2017,

[3] State Convention of the Colored People of California (1857 : San Francisco, CA), “State Convention of the Colored People of California, San Francisco, October, 1857.,”, accessed January 3, 2017,

[4] Robert F. Heizer, "Civil Rights in California in the 1850s: A Case History," Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers, no. 31 (1964): 129-37, kas031-010.pdf, accessed January 3, 2017.

[5] Jan Batiste Adkins, Images of America: African Americans of San Francisco (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 19.

[6] Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: Norton, 1998), 92.


Written by Sydney Hemmendinger.  Taught by Sharla Fett, History 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.