In 1850, California ambivalently entered the Union with a state constitution that banned slavery. But the twisted roots of peonage, captivity, and coerced labor immediately distorted that freedom. Two pieces of legislation transformed California into a slave state: the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 which made it legal for plantation owners to retain enslaved African Americans who they had brought to California for the Gold Rush. The Colored Conventions in California of 1855, 1856, and 1857 arose in response to free and enslaved Blacks need to testify in court to protect themselves against these forces. This paper will describe their unlikely victory, as the Conventions launched a series of petition drives. These California Conventions mark the anti-slavery resistance of an emerging Black community.
Soon after the discovery of gold in 1848 over 6,000 African Americans came freely or were forcibly transported to California. Jointly they resisted the drive to turn California into a slave state by forming a West Coast Underground Railroad, chartering a steamship to carry Blacks to British Columbia, opening public transportation to Blacks, demanding that manumission or “Freedom Papers” be filed in county archives, starting newspapers, and challenging California’s Fugitive Slave Act in court cases, rescues, editorials, slave narratives, and letters. The California Colored Conventions, initially shaped by those in the East, were at the nexus of a rapid formation of an abolition movement in the West and a rapid formation of new African American communities in emergent towns and in new and remote rural counties. Though many free blacks who were leaders at the California Conventions had attended and led earlier Colored Conventions, I argue that factors of newly emergent communities and the vast geography of California created a unique racial site in California. The Conventions reveal how Black communities were forged from easily accessible alliances between free and enslaved Blacks and set expectations for legal standing and civil rights in the new state.
The antebellum Colored Conventions in California forged a community of free and enslaved blacks who established a West Coast convergence of abolitionists who provided information, money, and opportunities for escape and rescue. They arose in the context of the forceful presence of African American women who raised thousands of dollars for John Brown’s raid, and who sat in on the omnibuses to get arrested and desegregate San Francisco’s public transportation system over 100 years ahead of Rosa Parks. The conventions also reveal African Americans’ conscious affiliation with other unfree peoples in California—in particular indentured tribal people and kidnapped Chinese girls sold in dens and brothels in San Francisco and the gold fields. The Conventions challenge to the ban on testifying expose the alliances and fissures with California’s tribal peoples and are critical to understanding California’s diverse people whose demands for justice often overlapped. The coalitions formed in the Conventions made possible the rescue of fugitives and judicial challenges that would write freedom for ethnic minorities into legal precedent. This paper draws from my research toward California Bound: The History of Slavery in the West and turns to the outstanding undergraduate research students did on 1855 delegates when I adopted the Colored Convention Project curriculum.