From Slavery to Freedom: 
Library digitization project revisits California’s complex past

Many 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.

What unofficially “took hold” in 19th century California, though, is another story

Despite 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.

To 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.

Until now.

CSUS Library’s digital archive project

The 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 Freedom", publication of the National Park Service, Pacific West Region, Department of the Interior).

An 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

2003 Underground Railroad digital archive roundtable

As 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.”

The 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.

Living History: Library Research untangles myth

That 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 California’s past.”

Starr 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 Francisco.

That Leidesdorff’s race has been written out of California history is, in Starr’s words, “outrageous.”

During 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 library.

Roundtable “Stories” and archive content: Sleuthing for sources

Dr. 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.

In 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 slavery.”

Broussard 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 abolitionist papers.”

The 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.

Just 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.

CSUS’ 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:

California State Library to become a member 
of the National Park Service Network to Freedom

The National Park Service is facilitating program to commemorate and interpret the Underground Railroad: the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom ( 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.

Because 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.

If 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 Or visit the National Park Service website at



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