Each one of the Colored Conventions held in California between 1850 and 1869 criticized the state’s laws’ failure to protect its African American residents. The delegates of 1865 California State Convention, held in Sacramento, asserted “that of the colored population throughout the United States, there are fewer criminals and paupers than among any other class of the community. We are a self-sustaining community, and are no burden on the body politic, while we contribute to the general expenses of Federal and State Governments.” [1] The delegates and attendees in California conventions were responding to a justice system that ignored African Americans’ contributions to the country and right to live as free persons. By design, California’s state laws denied persons of color civil and political rights, and its justice system were balanced heavily towards whites, whose citizenship rights were unquestioned.

In 1850, California passed an Act Concerning Civil Cases, which disqualified court testimonies of Native Americans, Blacks, and mulattos against whites. In response, all Colored Conventions held in California in the 1850s condemned the laws that rendered African Americans powerless to defend themselves in court (see below). California conventions consistently petitioned the California Legislature to have this changed. In 1854, the Supreme Court instead extended the provisions of the act, barring Chinese persons from testifying in court.

First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, 1855:

In obedience to call, a Convention of the colored people of the State of California, by their delegates, assembled at Sacramento…for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of petitioning the Legislature of California, for a change in the law relating to the testimony of colored people, in the Courts of justice of this State.

Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, 1856

“…we are soliciting the attention of the people to the injustice of the laws which deprive us of testimony, and our children of public schooling. When we shall go to the State House asking for the repeal of those laws, we shall petition respectfully.” —George Gordon

State Convention of the Colored People of California, San Francisco, October, 1857

The Committee recommend; 1st, that petitions be sent to the Legislature asking a repeal of the law invalidating colored person’s testimony. 2d, that committees be appointed in each county, to canvass the same more thoroughly than heretofore, for signatures to said petitions. 

California State Convention of the Colored Citizens, Held in Sacramento, 1865

For the fourth time the colored citizens of this State are assembled in Convention for the purpose of obtaining JUSTICE, and the consideration of subjects tending to our general elevation. The principal object which created the preceding conventions, was the admission of our testimony in the courts of justice in this State. This has been happily accomplished by our untiring efforts, and the generous and noble co-operation of the friends of justice in the Legislature.

With very little to no legal avenues, seven African American men were recorded to have been executed in California from 1830 to 1899. While this may not seem a lot, it must be noted that the Black population in California during the nineteenth century was extremely small. Extrajudicial killings and deaths in jails are not counted in this record of executions. Many more non-white persons were executed, as Colored Conventions delegates and attendees continued to petition and criticize California’s white supremacist laws.

Below is a chart that shows the number of executed persons in California each year.  Click below and scroll over the chart to reveal specific numerical values.

SOURCE: Data gathered from BlackSheep Ancestors, crosschecked using Time Magazine’s findings.

Due to systemic elimination of Native populations, the impediments migrating African Americans faced, and other factors, California’s white population dwarfed that of non-whites throughout the nineteenth century. Yet, African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanic Californians were consistently represented in the state’s yearly executions. California courts’ exclusionary practices ensured that non-whites would not be entitled to the same civil rights and protections guaranteed to whites. With extremely limited legal avenues, African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics were hanged and shot after flawed trials. These groups also populated prisons in egregiously disproportionate numbers.

By the late nineteenth century, targeting nonwhites was a cemented practice within California’s justice system. Looking at the number of arrests in one of California’s largest counties allows us to grasp the enormity of a system designed to replicate conditions under slavery.

Although African Americans consistently made up a small number of California residents throughout the nineteenth century, law enforcement focused their resources and energy in targeting them. In Los Angeles City, police records show that between 1894 and 1900, officers arrested an average of 160 African Americans a year. [2] The chart below compares Los Angeles county’s Black population with Los Angeles city’s number of arrests of African Americans.

SOURCE: Based on the records of Los Angeles Police Department gathered by Kelly Lytle Hernandez for her text City of Inmates and the Historical Census Browser 1900 via Marne L. Campbell’s Making Black Los Angeles: Class, Gender, and Community, 1850-1917.

On average, eight percent of the whole county’s Black population were arrested in Los Angeles alone per year. Considering that the Black population in Los Angeles county in the early 1890s grew very slowly, this number of arrests would have had direct and lasting impact on such a small Black community. Through arrests, incarceration, and executions, the justice system effectively stymied Black communities’ mobility, ensuring economic, social, and political dominance by the white population.


[1] 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 October 7, 2017,

[2] Kelly Lytle Hernández. City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 56.