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Education for People of Color in California

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Education for People of Color in California


In organizing a progressive environment for people of color in California, the establishment of education was a large stake in this development. Slavery denied people of color access to education. Slavery perpetuated this idea that people of color didn’t have the ability to survive off the plantation in part because of their illiteracy. In California, though it was not slave territory, the state government was not allowing people of color to enter these public schools. People of color saw education as an opportunity they needed to become financially autonomous and hopefully extinguish some of the racism whites had by becoming a respected educated person of color. Throughout the California Colored Conventions of 1856-1865 education efforts range from buying land and creating a school for people of color, or proving to the state government in some way that people of color were eligible to attend these public schools.
In the California Colored Convention of 1856, they began discussing if immediate efforts made towards education were necessary; delegates in favor of these efforts stress the immense necessity for education of colored persons within the U.S. The proceedings began when the Chairman made a committee of delegates to find a resolution for the education of black children. The members of this meeting include, N.F. Henry, F. G. Barbadoes, C. M. Wilson, F. Hatfield, E. R. Phelps. On the third day of the convention the delegates view a resolution that the committee has proposed. The resolution asks that the delegates buy land in order to later make a college for colored persons with a Manual Labor School. Henry suggests that for the report the delegates provide statistics, taxes etc. in order for the government to see the eligibility colored persons have for getting an education. Insistent that the delegates understand the necessity of education, he explains 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 goes 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 used the ideology of people of color being uneducated as not deserving of respect or success. Respectability politics played a large role in the avocation for education amongst people of color in California because they felt it would help them achieve their goals. Similar to colored Americans of the north, the idea of migrating west, represented starting new life away from the oppressive slave territory and taking advantage of the industry, as they were not able to before.{3} Education in the North was seen as a vital vehicle to success and those activists created preparatory schools for colored persons to go to universities in the Midwest such as Oberlin. Henry saw that it was 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 “safer” proposal promised people of color that their children would be educated, however this plan was not met with its intention.
Following Townsend’s proposal people gradually made attempts to get their children into public schools. In 1858 Sarah Lester, daughter of Peter and Nancy Lester, was expelled from her all white common school for passing for white. Even though Townsend was looking more towards common schools allowing black students to attend these schools, many colored persons in California sent their white passing children to these schools in order for them to become educated. In “January 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 students defended her, and many colored persons who had white passing children in common schools; spoke out against the school board. The colored persons claimed that it was not fair their “phenotypically” white child could risk expulsion even if they were high performing such as Lester. In the end, the board decided that no colored person would be given the right to attend the common schools passing or not passing. In reaction to this decision, the Lester family moves to Vancouver and so did a large variety of colored persons. Then was Henry’s proposal in fact more practicable then Townsends? Townsend’s proposal resulted in multiple families migrating to Canada, which was not apart of the plan.
In the 1865 California Colored Convention, the Committee on Education brought back the proposal created in 1856 but tweaks it. In the start of the convention they discuss the Emancipation Proclamation and its influence on their lives as people of color in California. They mention in the convention that the Emancipation Proclamation has deemed all men equal and everyone given equal rights, hence it should higher their chances of getting their appeal 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 ask:

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 this convention was more centered on making sure colored persons are given the same opportunities as their white counterparts, especially now that they Constitutionally are given that right. In the Convention of 1856, they were less confident about what the resolution should be but now that the Emancipation Proclamation would give them some form of protection.
The fight for education throughout the California Conventions was something that would determine most of the goals these Conventions were trying to achieve. Such as, the financial autonomy of people of color in California, establishing jobs and creating a thriving racial class of people of color within California.

{1}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.Pg. 148
{2}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, 148
{3}Nell, William C. “Colored Convention”. The Liberator. 3 Jul 1857: 108. Print.
{4}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. Pg. 149
{5}Roberts, Sylvia Alden. Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush. Bloomington, IN: IUniverse, 2008. Print.
{6}Proceedings of the California State Convention of the Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of October 1865. Page 8



Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California (1856 : Sacramento, CA), “Education for People of Color in California,”, accessed December 14, 2019,