Slavery to Freedom:
digitization project revisits California's complex past
Californians might think that before and during the
American Civil War, California was a “free” state.
According to scholars, that’s true. Slavery (banned in
California’s “Compromise of 1850”) never
officially “took hold” in California.
unofficially “took hold” in 19th
century California, though, is another story.
the state’s “free” status, during the greater Gold
Rush era some 200-300 African American slaves, forced to
gold fields by southern masters, toiled in California.
Worse, in 1852 California passed a California-specific
Fugitive Slave Act that protected slave-owners’ “property”
rights. Freedom seekers, or escaped slaves (the “property”),
were, from 1852 to 1855, sent back to the South and a
reward given to their abductor. Free
African American Californians, like San
Francisco entrepreneur and Underground Railroad
agent, Mary Ellen Pleasant, reacted against
slavery in California and the Underground
Railroad spread to the west-coast.
work, the resistance to slavery in California
had to stay clandestine, underground. And
much of the proof that the Underground Railroad
existed in California has stayed secret too.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
Library’s digital archive project
National Park Service (NPS) has called for “new
sources of information to expand” on existing data on
the Underground Railroad in California. The NPS says
that “relevant material, such as newspapers, documents
and photographs, might be located in attics, basements
or garages” in addition to libraries and archives. The
NPS also says “family stories of the period can
provide an oral history of the people involved in
battling slavery in California.” ("Quest for
publication of the National Park Service, Pacific West
Region, Department of the Interior).
academic library, the library at California State
University, Sacramento (CSUS), through a Library
Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, is gathering
and digitizing disparate primary source materials about
slavery and the Underground Railroad in California.
CSUS Library’s Underground Railroad Digital Archive
Project results from the collaborative efforts of
government agencies such as the California State Library
and the National Park Service as well as those of
historians, educators, artists, students and community
groups. The Underground Railroad Digital Archive,
according to Dr. Terry D. Webb, library director and
dean at CSUS, will, in February 2004, “offer the world”
an untold, and largely undiscovered, chapter on
California slavery and resistance.
CSUS Underground Railroad team, headed by Webb,
Underground Railroad specialist Joe Moore and professor
of history, Dr. Shirley Ann Moore, is cataloguing the
primary sources, the “relevant material,” for which
the NPS has called. Here are two examples of digitalized
items from the CSUS Digital Archive:
| "Slave Advertised for Sale." San
Francisco Herald, June 18 1852, 3.
Clyde Augustus. "Report of the Proceedings of the
Second Annual Meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the
American Historical Association, by C.A. Duniway."
Annual report of the American historical association for
the year 1905, vol. 1 (1906): 219-229; 241-248.
Underground Railroad digital archive roundtable
part of the Digital Archive Project, distinguished
scholars from around the country gathered at CSUS in
November 2003 to cull scattered facts and narratives
from the 19th century African American experience in
California. At the roundtable and workshop, “From
Slavery to Freedom: Preserving 19th Century Documents
for the 21st Century,” the panelists not only showed
the live audience and web-cast viewers how the
historical artifacts bound for the CSUS Library’s
Underground Railroad Digital Archive Project support new
California historical theory, they also told, as one
member quipped, “the interesting tales…that
blossomed wherever black people settled in the West.”
roundtable panelists were Susan Bragg, University of
Washington; Dr. Albert Broussard, Texas A & M
University; Dr. Douglas H. Daniels, UC Santa Barbara;
Dr. Joseph A. Pitti, CSUS Sacramento and Dr. Quintard
Taylor, University of Washington.
History: Library research untangles myth
California was a free state before and during the Civil
War is only “high-school rhetoric,” according to State
Librarian of California, Dr. Kevin Starr who
introduced the roundtable. “California has a duty to
resurrect history and make it part of our living
history,” he said. “Full diversity,” Starr said,
prevailed in early California and is “part of
California’s DNA code.” Slavery and “Afro-Californians’”
lack of resistance to slavery are “painful
misconceptions” in California history. The CSUS
Digital Archive, according to Starr, will “describe
and represent these tremendous complexities of
gave William Leidesdorff’s life as an example of one
” debilitating myth” corroding California history.
An African American, Leidesdorff was the first treasurer
of San Francisco and one of the founders of San
Leidesdorff’s race has been written out of California
history is, in Starr’s words, “outrageous.”
an open-mike session, an audience member, an Oakland
elementary teacher, made Starr’s injunction concrete.
The teacher told how her African American students do
not know their history. The children do not know how and
why their ancestors came to California, or how their
ancestors lived. CSUS president, Dr. Alex Gonzales, like
Starr, addressed this hole in our history books in his
opening remarks: “Too much true California history,”
Webb said, “is overlooked in the curriculum.” This
curriculum change is getting its start through a
Librarian of California,
Dr. Kevin Starr
“Stories” and archive content: Sleuthing for sources
Quintard Taylor, an expert in frontier African
American history, told the audience that thanks to “tremendous
[African American] resistance” to the institution of
slavery, slavery never became formally legal in any
western state. But about 300 slaves came into California
to work the claims: their owners mention slaves in
letters back home.
discussing one overlooked California narrative, Dr
Albert Broussard pointed out that “American civil
rights began in the 1850’s with Mary Ellen Pleasant”
who figures largely in the CSUS Digital Archives. Racism
surprised African Americans like Pleasant who came to
the Bay Area because they believed in a better life in
San Francisco. Broussard asked the audience to “imagine
[African Americans’] surprise when they encountered
rampant racism. The Bay Area, where Pleasant lived,
became a “hotbed of civil rights activity” in the
19th century and the activists’ rallying cry was “eradicating
said that the black-owned Elevator, another item in the
CSUS digital archive, was “the most militant voice in
San Francisco in 19th century,” representing the “protest
and push” against racist laws. Generally, the “earliest
libraries in the west were reading rooms stocked with
CSUS roundtable members concurred with the CSUS digital
archive team on the best places to find items that will
help “resurrect history.” As African Americans went
about caring for themselves and perpetuating their
culture (as panelist Daniels said), they wrote things
down, reported on their activities, logged statistics.
some of the sources are: nineteenth century black
newspapers like the Pacific Appeal and the Elevator;
letters back home from gold mining slave owners and
letters back home from free African American
Californians alluding to Underground Railroad
activities; church records from African Methodist
Episcopal and Baptist churches (three in the late 1850’s
in San Francisco); benevolent societies like Masonic
organizations (which took up collections for the
Underground Railroad); legal documents such as articles
of incorporation. 19th century census rolls also reveal
a great deal.
research team found many of these items at the
California State Library. For more information
about the CSUS Library Digital Archive Project, please
contact Joe Moore or Professor Shirley A. Moore at (916)
278-7302 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
State Library to become a member of the National Park
Service Network to Freedom
National Park Service is facilitating program to
commemorate and interpret the Underground Railroad: the
National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (http://22.214.171.124/TEMPLATE/FrontEnd/program.cfm).
To join the Network to Freedom, an organization must be
a site or facility with a verifiable association with
the Underground Railroad, or be an organization that has
accessible documents related to the Underground
Railroad. The organization must demonstrate its
contribution to expanding the American people’s
understanding of the Underground Railroad.
of the CSL’s large collection of items from the 19th
century African American experience in California, many
of which are being digitized for the CSUS Digital
Archive Project, the California State Library (CSL) is
joining the Network to Freedom.
your library or organization would like to learn about
joining the Network to Freedom, contact Guy Washington,
Network to Freedom Regional Coordinator at 510-817-1390
Or visit the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov.