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Slavery and California
 

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The national debate that raged over slavery during the 1850s did not bypass California.  outhern slaveholders transported hundreds of slaves into the gold fields to work the mines.  In addition, any free African Americans chose to join the Gold Rush.  By 1852, approximately 2,000 African Americans called California home, a number that had doubled by 1860.  Free or slave, however, state law remained ambiguous in terms of the civil rights of African Americans for many years. 

The 1849 constitution banned slavery, and California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850.  Laws passed that year in California, by contrast, restricted the right of all African Americans to vote, or testify in a court case involving a white person.  In addition, the legislature enacted California's Fugitive Slave Act in 1852, providing for the return of fleeing slaves to their Southern masters. 

Several California court cases, most famously that of Archy Lee in 1858, saw slave owners attempt to return free African Americans to servitude.  Local communities rallied to support these defendants and petitions were circulated to increase the legal rights of African Americans.  The Fugitive Slave Act expired in 1856, never to be renewed.  Finally, in 1865, the state legislature voted to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery.  Although African Americans still often encountered prejudice and hostility in California, they could no longer be subjected to involuntary servitude.


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California Fugitive Slave Act, 1852. Original Bill File, Secretary of State Records, California State Archives.

California Fugitive Slave Act, 1852

Original Bill File, Secretary of State Records, California State Archives


Petition to increase the rights of African Americans in California, 1852.  State Legislature Records, California State Archives.

Petition to increase the rights of African Americans in California, 1852. 

State Legislature Records, California State Archives.


Petition of Southern slaveholders to bring slaves into California, 1852.  State Legislature Records, California State Archives.

Petition of Southern slaveholders to bring slaves into California, 1852. 

State Legislature Records, California State Archives


The first page of the California State  Legislature’s ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution  abolishing slavery, 1865.  Original  Bill File, Secretary of State Records, California State Archives.

The first page of the California State Legislature’s ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery, 1865. 

Original Bill File, Secretary of State Records, California State Archives



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