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California Once Tried to Ban Black People

February 9, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Elizabeth Flake Rowan. (Credit: Public Domain)

When Peter Burnett took the podium in Sacramento in 1849, he faced a group of men like him—pioneers determined to take California from an upstart territory to a full-fledged state. He had been elected California’s first governor just a day before, and as he addressed his fellow legislators, he brought up one of the most explosive issues of his time: the place of black people in the future state.

California had decided to ban slavery after a heated debate, but Burnett’s vision didn’t include black residents at all. “It could be no favor, and no kindness, to permit [free blacks] to settle in the State,” he said, “while it would be a most serious injury to us….Had they been born here, and had acquired rights in consequence, I should not recommend any measures to expel them…the object is to keep them out.”

Burnett wasn’t alone in his vision of a California that banned black people. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, California citizens and legislators fought to ensure that free black people would be prohibited from immigrating to or living in California. And though their efforts eventually failed, they reflected the fear and racism faced by black people in the American West.

Elizabeth Flake Rowan. (Credit: Public Domain)

California held both opportunity and danger for people of color, many of whom were freed slaves. Born into slavery, Elizabeth Flake Rowan had been freed when she entered California territory. After settling in what is now San Bernardino, Rowan helped build a fort, cared for the children and women of her community, and enjoyed the abundance of the young state. Though her daily life was relatively mundane—she lived with her husband, a barber, and raised three children while working as a laundress, she was perceived as a threat by Californians who wanted her and others like her excluded from the state altogether.

California’s move to exclude black people from the state had roots in the new state’s conflict over whether to allow slavery or not. At the time, a national debate raged over how to decide if the United States’ newest territories should be open to slavery, and opinion split between pro-slavery advocates—mostly from Southern states—and “free soilers,” abolitionists who wished to introduce more slave-free states and territories into the Union. …read more


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