EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW: CALIFORNIA BLACK CONVENTION ACTIVISM, 1855-65
While California entered the Union as a free state in 1850, Jean Pfaelzer notes that “In fact, California remained a slave state. Its constitution was a fraudulent ticket to the civic and military benefits of statehood. With most eyes turned to the ‘Gold Mountain,’ southerners won control of the governor’s mansion and the legislature.”1 California’s legislature subsequently passed acts that paved the way for wholesale discrimination, disenfranchisement, slavery, and forced removal of persons of color, to name a few.
Looking at the biographies included in this exhibit, how do the lives of Black Californians reflect the state’s possibilities and failed promises?
1 Jean Pfaelzer’s article “None but Colored Testimony against Him: The California Colored Convention of 1855 and the Origins of the First Civil Rights Movement in California,” The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century, eds P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah Lynn Paterson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 333.
Both this exhibit and Pfaelzer’s article show that African Americans in California rallied against the state’s highly racist constitution, which banned any person of color from testifying or giving evidence against white people. The first three Colored Conventions in the state centered on demanding equal access to justice and thus marked “the first civil rights movement in the Golden State.”
Explain this intervention. How does this knowledge compel us to rethink narratives about California, its legal system, and the social movements that emerged in the state?
This page explores how African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Chinese persons in California interacted and shared space.
How did California’s diverse population shape California conventions’ protests and demands?
This exhibit offers maps indicating where convention delegates came from. In each of these counties, Black communities remained relatively small throughout the nineteenth century.
What insights can we glean through these maps? What do they say about California’s Black community?
This exhibit delves into the political and social contexts in which Black Californians’ resistance movement emerged.
Write a paragraph to a page proposal for a visualization or other type of content that would accompany one of the sections in this page.
If your class were to create/hold a convention today, what issues would be its focus? Write a convention call that outlines the convention’s objectives, urgent issues at hand, and the active measures delegates and attendees would need to consider, discuss, and plan. Write a comprehensive call and brief version of it (see examples in separate tabs above, EXAMPLE: Full Convention Call and EXAMPLE: Brief Convention Call). Prepare to address the following questions:
1) How would your convention be organized?
2) What organizations and which leaders would be invited? Who are the non-famous people who would need to be there and from what communities/entities would they draw? Consider how an unprecedented number of Black women participated in the 1854 Emigration Convention and how their presence informed the issues that were discussed and the resolutions that were passed.
3) What objectives do you think most attendees would agree on?
4) What major differences in approaches do you think delegates might have?
5) How do you think it would be covered by the press?
[UPDATE THIS] From the Colored Conventions Project’s Digital Records – view
A CALL FOR A CONVENTION OF THE COLORED INHABITANTS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK.
Fellow Citizens, – We issue this call, to invite you to attend a State Convention , to be held in the city of Albany on Tuesday, the 18th day of August next.
The primary object we have in inviting you to assemble is, to take in to consideration the political condition of our people in this State, and to adopt such measures as can be simultaneously carried out by our brethren, in every section of the State, to obtain a relief from those political disabilities under which we labor.
The principal legal disability which affects us is, our deprivation of the free exercise, in common with other men, of the elective franchise. A free suffrage is the basis of a free government, the safe-guard of a free people, the strength of the strong, the defence of the weak, a powerful auxiliary to respectability, wealth and usefulness; – and just in proportion as men are deprived of this, they are shorn of their strength, and are subject to poverty, disgrace, and abuse.
We are convinced, fellow citizens, that not only our political, but our depressed condition in all other respects in the State, owes itself, not in the least sense, to the fact that we are politically weak, not possessing the unrestricted use of the elective franchise. The body politic see in us, therefore, no favors to court, and nothing to fear. It is to them a matter of no concern, what may be the abuses we suffer, or how unhappy our condition.
You are aware, that while other citizens have a free and unrestricted use of the elective franchise, a property qualification is required on our part, in order for us to exercise this right, so important to a free people, and without which, a man cannot be considered, in a democratic sense, a freeman. This invidious requisition to the exercise of a birth-right privilege, weakens our standing as citizens of the State, and subjects us to all consequent inconveniences. It also degrades our population, because it virtually lowers us in the scale of humanity, and reflects disparagingly upon our character. To seek a removal of this radical evil, is the object of calling you together in convention .
There has been no time so favorable for us to meet for the above object, as the present season. There is evidently a redeeming spirit abroad in our State – an increasing disposition to stand by, and defend the weak against the strong, as the noble acts of the Legislature regarding our protection as citizens, clearly indicate. Ought we not, then, to avail ourselves of this favorable indication, and come together to take some decisive measures to lay before the next Legislature our grievances, with a view to produce further action on their part, for our political disenthralment?
To facilitate the business of the convention , it will be necessary that statements setting forth the legal and other disabilities of our people in different parts of the state, be presented at the Convention . To further this object, we invite all who expect to be present, to collect such statements, and also statistical accounts of the property, real and personal, public buildings, with their value, &c., owned by our people, and the condition of the people in morals, as compared with former times.
We therefore urge upon colored men in all sections of the State – men in all circumstances – if you possess self-respect – if you love liberty – if you appreciate your own rights – if you wish for political and moral elevation – if you have any interest in the prosperity of our people – if you have any regard for the welfare of your children – for the welfare of the State and of the Nation, to assemble at Albany on the 18th of August next.
We call upon the farmer to leave for a while his harvesting, and repair to the assemblage of his brethren. Let the mechanic leave his workshop, to share the toils of a general council. Let the laborer and the workingman be seen crowding the avenues that lead to the place of assemblage. Let every portion of our great and growing State, where lives a single object of oppression, be represented. We call upon the people in every city, town and village to represent themselves in that Convention . Let the aged and the youth – all – all – be found at the above place, on that day. Come up, fellow citizens, from Suffolk to Erie, from Clinton to Steuben, and let us engage together in a common interest.
NEW YORK CITY – Chas. B. Ray, Theo. S. Wright, John J. Zaille, Chas. L. Reason, Timothy Seaman, Wm. P. Johnson, Philip A. Bell, Henry Stoughtenburgh, D. Elston, Thomas Downing, Thos. S. Sidney, Frederick Olney, P.H. Reason, Z.S. Barbary, T. Van Rensalaer, Pres. of the Long Island Convention .
BROOKLYN – Augustus Washington.
JAMAICA – S.V. Berry, Wm. Ranty.
FLUSHING – Aaron Wood, Rev. Mr. Moore.
KINGSTON – Wm. Hansbrouck,
ALBANY – Rev. J.T. Raymond. R. Thompson, Jr.
TROY – W. Rich, Henry H. Garnett, A. Theuay, Jacob Brown, Wm. S. Baltimore, Geo. B. Morton, Marshall Jones.
GENEVA – Rev. John Niles, J.W. Duffin.
ROCHESTER – Rev. Thomas James, W.L. Brown.
BATH – Rev. John Tappan.
COMMITTEE OF CORRESPONDENCE.
The committee take the liberty to appoint the following persons, as a committee of correspondence, and to adopt such measures in their own city and town, as will further the object of the convention . If they are not willing to serve, they will please address a note to the chairman of the committee, (post paid none other will be taken from the office) to that effect. If no reply is made we shall regard it as accepting the appointment, and also as consenting to have their names attached to the call for the convention . We shall wait a few weeks for a reply,
NEWBURGH – C. Payne, I. Allen, J. Ray, T. Kendall.
POUGHKEEPSIE – J. Gray, M. Francis, U. Boston, H. Johnson.
KINGSTON – T. Harley, W. Hasbrouck.
CATTSKILL – M. Cross.
HUDSON – W. Van Alstine.
ALBANY – Rev. J.T. Raymond, R. Thompson, Mr. Pogue, Top & Van Vrankin, C. Morton.
TROY – Wm. Rich, A. Theuay, G. Baltimore.
WEST TROY – Wm. Stewart, Wm. King.
SCHENACTADY – R.P.G. Wright, Thomas Jackson, F. Thompson, John Wendall, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Dana.
UTICA – G.L. Brown, James Fountain, B.S. Anderson, Peter Freeman, R. Paul.
WHITSBOROUGH – J.W. Logan, E.P. Rogers, J.M. Brickers.
LITTLE FALLS – Wm. Jackson.
NEW HARTFORD – R. Wells, Mr. Brewster.
SYRACUSE – Rev. Mr. Chester, P. Jackson, Wm. Jenkins, A. Dunbar.
OSWEGO – T.E. Grant, D. Pease.
VOLNEY – Silas Slater, Mr. Slater.
GENEVA – J.W. Duffin, J. Bland, A. Freeman, S. Condall.
CANANDAIGUA – D.H. Ray, R. Valintine.
PALMYRA – P.B. Lee.
ITHACA – H. Jackson.
BATH – E.L. Platt, Rev. J. Tappan.
ELMYRA – Wm. Johnson.
ROCHESTER – A. Stewart, J. Brown, W.L. Brown, A. Williams, J.H. Bishop.
LEROY – O. Wood.
LOCKPORT – Wm. Brumley, Geo. Miller, W. Miles, J. Morgan, J. Robinson.,
BUFFALO – A.H. Francis, J.L. Lincheum, J. Garritt, J. Walker, P. Harris, H. Hawkins, B. Lincheum, Geo. Ware, Wm. Qualls.
SACKETTS HARBOR – Julias Ferrill.
FISHKILL – A. Adkins.
Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York (1840 : Albany, NY), “A Call for a Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/596.
From the Colored Conventions Project’s Digital Records – view
“Colored Convention. Bishop Turner of Atlanta Calls the Meeting to Order in Cincinnati.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/1656.
This teaching guide was created in spring 2021 by Samantha de Vera (History PhD candidate at UC San Diego) in collaboration with P. Gabrielle Foreman (CBDR Co-director, Penn State). Reviewed by Janel Moore Almond (Colored Conventions Project Teaching Advisory Board).
Coleman, Willi. “African American Women and Community Development in California, 1848–1900.” In Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California, edited by De Graaf Lawrence B., Mulroy Kevin, and Taylor Quintard, 98-126. Seattle; London: University of Washington Press, 2001.
Hudson, Lynn M. The Making of Mammy Pleasant: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Lapp, Rudolph. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Pfaelzer, Jean. Of Human Bondage: Slavery in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, (forthcoming).
Smith, Stacey L. “Remaking Slavery in a Free State: Masters and Slaves in Gold Rush California.” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 1 (2011): 28-63.
Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.