Gold and Chains: Reckoning with Slavery and Racism in California

Black miner during Gold Rush era. Credit: Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

Most of the prominent clichés when discussing California portray the state as the golden land of Hollywood, beaches or a liberal state of vegans and free thinkers. To be fair, California’s campaign to right past wrongs has produced noteworthy successes. For example, marijuana has been legal for years and many people jailed for marijuana offenses have been set free with clean records. However, under its golden exterior, it’s a state mired in contradiction.  California has a record of enslavement and racial hierarchy. Worse still, those “great men” of California who denied freedom and equality to others remain exalted as iconic and heroic by California’s official institutions.  In this new historical moment, let us champion those who demand a reckoning with slavery, long-overdue and much-needed to redeem this “golden” state still marred by its legacy of enslavement.

California was brought into the United States as a “free” state in 1850 and even though the state’s official stance was anti-slavery, slavery persisted for years for African Americans and Native Americans. What was supposed to be a land full of riches left many destitute, especially the people already living on the land when it was “discovered” by Europeans and early American settlers.

When gold was found in 1849, California was inundated with newcomers hoping to strike it rich. One of these men was white man from Mississippi named Charles Perkins. He arrived in California with his three slaves; Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins and Sandy Jones. After a short time, Charles decided to head back to the South, leaving the slaves in the care of a friend but promising the trio freedom if they worked for a few more months. They were freed November 1951 and swiftly established a successful mining business. Their future looked bright. Even though Charles Perkins did not provide paperwork granting them freedom, men assumed their freedom was guaranteed because California outlawed slavery in 1850. However, California passed a Fugitive Slave Act in 1852 declaring slaves arriving before 1850 were still property of their prior owner. In April 1852, Charles Perkins’ first cousin, Green Perkins broke into the men’s cabin while they were sleeping, tied them up and hauled them in a wagon to Sacramento. The trio hired a lawyer who argued that their detainment was unconstitutional, but no justice was to be found in court. The group eventually escaped while being deported to Mississippi. Many other African Americans would find themselves in the same predicament of fighting for their freedom in the courts. Five years later in 1857, the US Supreme Court, speaking as the supreme authority in America as a whole, declared, “the negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect, and the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

African Americans were not alone in suffering under Californian “freedom.” The indigenous population of California suffered under the Spanish as well as the Americans. Native American slavery in California dates to the early 1800s when Franciscan missionaries established Missions along the Pacific coast. Max Mazzetti from the Rincon Reservation recalled a story he heard about Mission San Luis Rey,

“The Father there had Spaniards working the Indians as slaves there, and when they ran away, the Spaniards would come to Rincon and get the babies, swinging them by the arm or leg and toss them into the cactus…while the babies were crying, the Spaniards would make the parents tell where the Indians were hiding…those who had run away from the mission.”

California issued this official resolution prior to being granted statehood: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” It echoes the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. Likewise, just as the 13th Amendment ushered in laws on vagrancy, and other minor offenses at the cost of freedom to African Americans, California passed the Act for Government and Protection of Indians. The act made it legal for white Americans to enslave Native Americans charged with loitering or public drinking. At the same time, it was a common practice for local ranchers and vineyard owners to pay their indigenous workers with wine. Lawmen routinely inspected the ranches to round up intoxicated Native Americans. The natives were later bailed out at auctions and forced to work off the newly incurred debt in a system similar to convict-leasing in the Jim Crow south.

The man who signed the Act for Government and Protection of Indians was Peter Hardeman Burnett, California’s first elected governor when it became a state. While not well known outside of California, he was recently rebuked by current governor, Gavin Newsome for his countless atrocities against Native Americans. Burnett envisioned a western frontier with no Native Americans, or blacks or Chinese. He predicted to the 1851 Legislature, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected …” He oversaw the massacre of hundreds of innocent Pomo tribe members in an event known as the Bloody Island Massacre in 1850. Owing in part to his desire to pass a violent exclusionary law against African Americans and to his overall poor leadership, his tenure as governor lasted only one year, but he was still elected to the California Supreme Court in 1857 because racism in America is rarely a deal breaker.

Peter Burnett  along with John Sutter helped establish the city of Sacramento. John Sutter is another exalted person in California history whose past is bloodied by the atrocities for which he is responsible. He is well known for establishing Sutter’s Fort, which was a haven for white Americans traveling to the California territory and it was on his land that gold was found ushering in the Gold Rush in 1849. Several state-sanctioned sites to this day sing his praises as a pioneer and a hospitable, charitable gentleman. However, the indigenous community bears witness to Sutter’s crimes against humanity. There  are countless accounts of how he mistreated his Native American slaves, kidnapping, rape, and one account of keeping a native woman bound by her nose ring to a post. Even when California became a state, there was a law that forbade Native Americans, African Americans and mulattoes from testifying against white men, dooming them to suffer in silence without legal recourse. For years, there has been an outcry from the Californian Native American community about John Sutter’s mistreatment of his indigenous workers, yet he remains an honored forefather in the California pantheon.

Some progress has been made on reckoning with Sutter’s atrocities. On June 15, 2020, the John Sutter statue was removed from the Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, California and more removals of his name are on the horizon. It was one of countless statues or monuments removed as the United States began to publicly acknowledge how its past has shaped its present. In this manner, California can be seen as a microcosm of America.

Yet monuments to racist figures remain prominent in California even as others fall. In June 2015, the city of Sacramento erected an 8-foot tall statue of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan became governor of California after his career in Hollywood. During his campaign for governor in 1966, he denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He referred to the urban areas where African Americans lived as “jungles.” Recently, a recording of his talking to Richard Nixon reveals his reference to African Americans as “monkeys.” He also supported discriminatory housing policies saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes in the sale or renting of his property, it is his right to do so.” Once he decided to run for president, he coined the slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again” longing for the days before the Civil Rights Act. While president, he attempted to dilute the Voting Rights Act and attempted to abolish affirmative action. His refusal to disavow apartheid in South Africa, led Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu to declare he is “a racist, pure and simple.” Despite this, California decided to erect a statue in his honor in the state capitol building. The statue ironically replaced a statue of Christopher Columbus, the forefather of genocide in the Americas.

California has started making strides in decolonizing its history. School names are changing, and monuments are being removed all over the state as indigenous voices are being heard. In his farewell address to the nation, Reagan called America a “shining city on a hill” invoking the voice of writer and pilgrim, John Winthrop  discussing America as a beacon for freedom. What Reagan ignored is that Winthrop, author of A Model of Christian Charity owned at least one Native American slave taken during the Pequot War  of 1636–37. Perhaps a better farewell-cum-rallying cry that harks back to California history is Shakespeare’s “All that glitters is not gold.” However, the golden state that honors slaveholders and a racist former president as native sons can now pride itself on its native daughter and celebrate our new Black/South-Asian and first female Vice President of the United States of America. Kamala Harris represents California unchained.


“Involuntary Servitude Apprenticeship and Slavery of Native Americans in California « California Indian History.” n.d. Accessed November 11, 2020.

“Sutter Health Removes John Sutter Statue Amid Complaints About Racist History – Capradio.Org.” n.d. Accessed November 11, 2020.

Wee | @ewee, Dogmo Studios | Eliza. 2018. “About – Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California | ACLU NorCal.” ACLU of Northern CA. June 28, 2018.

Danger of COVID Conspiracy Theories

The internet is full of conspiracy theories. Some of these include theories like NASA faking the moon landing and the government hiding aliens at Area 51. Maybe you heard rumors that the Earth is flat, and scientists are covering up the “truth.” Most theories floating around are benign, but in this Age of Information, some of these ideas can become dangerous when left unchecked. Currently, the world is wrestling with the COVID-19 virus pandemic and conspiracy theories about the situation have flooded social media timelines for months. Misinformation is its own form of pandemic.

Some of the theories are funny and who doesn’t need a laugh during this time of social distancing and isolation? The funniest ideas I read were Disney+ releasing just in time to capitalize on the virus (they may be on to something though), and that you can use vodka as hand sanitizer. I also saw rumors that garlic can cure COVID-19 and the virus possibly arrived from space. On my timelines I even saw memes and posts saying that African Americans were immune to the virus which is ludicrous. Have you heard the one that 5G towers are causing the spread of the virus? More on that one later.

Initially, Americans didn’t take the virus seriously, and some still don’t. Movies about pandemics like 28 Days Later and Contagion were trending that first week of “social distancing” and countless Coronavirus memes were being shared across the country. There is an inherent danger of entertainment becoming reality when consuming unchecked information nonstop the way we do in 2020. I’m reminded of an autumn night in 1938 when the War of the Worlds broadcast caused a brief panic to the few people who missed the segment of the broadcast which stated it was meant to be entertainment. Memes, social media and many of the conspiracy theories out there should provide such disclaimers.

Unchecked conspiracy theories can have consequences. There were over 980 cases of measles in the United States in 2019. Measles, a disease declared eradicated in the country had a sudden resurgence. This resurgence was caused partly by so-called “anti-vaxxers” who embraced the theory that vaccines cause autism. The movement grew and parents started to withhold or avoid the MMR vaccinations that prevent measles. In this case, unverified information led to the spread of a disease Americans believed to be a thing of the past.

In the month of April, over fifty 5G towers were attacked and set on fire by vandals in the United Kingdom. One attack forced the evacuation of a housing development near the tower forcing the quarantined citizens into the street. The theory that COVID-19 doesn’t exist and the newly built 5G towers are linked to the spread of COVID-19 motivated these attacks. The theories insist that people are becoming sick from the radiation these towers emit. There is no science to support this, but the idea has been propagated by radical social media groups and even a few celebrities on their quest to #staywoke. It is amazing to see how many people believe information on radio waves, frequencies and advanced science from people who barely understand the workings of their iPhones. Conspiracy theories aren’t going anywhere and some even will have nuggets of truth but before you embrace their ideas, research and think for yourself. Ensure you’re truly awake.

Navigating the Green Book

Navigating the Green Book. Created and maintained by NYPL Labs. Reviewed February 17, 2020

Covers of different Green Books highlighted on the site

Navigating the Green Book is an interactive project by NYPL labs that targets Americans-especially those interested in African American history. The goal of the site is to invite people to learn and experience in a small way a part of African American history through the use of Green Books. Green Books were travel guides directing African American travelers to safe locations to rest, obtain gas, shop and eat as they traversed the dangerous American roads between 1936 and 1966. The site wants the viewers to engage the data they are sharing and place yourself in the shoes of a black traveler in the 1930s or 1950s. They want you to think of all that places you can go and all the places that are inaccessible based on the color of your skin. The site also encourages you plan a virtual trip with the Green Book as your guide.

Navigating the Green Book has a simple interface. The home screen describes what the project is and what their goals are. There are two tabs you can press from this main screen. Clicking the “View the Map” tab will show the entire data-set of places NYPL has scanned from the pages of Green Books. The other tab invites guests to “Map a Trip.” When using this feature, guests choose a starting point and destination. Then a GPS-like map appears and you can see what roads you need to take and what places are available to you along your trip. It is a well-done feature that shows you what sections of America a black person might want to avoid. The map has an interactive icon indicating if a place is a bar, hotel or restaurant. It’s fascinating to note that some places of rest are not actually hotels but people who opened their homes to travelers. Clicking on the links provides additional information about the place and links you to the actual Green Book that a particular listing was scanned from. You can also decide what year you are traveling in and based on that, the site will have different available places to stop along your virtual trip.

If you do not want to plan a trip you are encouraged to click the “View the Map” tab. This takes you to a map of the United States and shows 796 locations that NYPL has currently uploaded. This feature highlights the locations of interest through a cluster of points spread over a given area or you can view the places through a heatmap. This shows a general area where more resources would be available to the African American traveler. This view only shows Green Book data from 1947.

The site notes they are still digitizing Green Books and invites visitors to check out the digitized data from at least 21 Green Books so far. The site uses the simplest of images, but they are effective. The site has the benefit of working from a smart phone. The site could provide more contextualization in explaining the necessity of the Green Book but the site chose to focus on exploring the words alone from the Green Books and I think it is a valuable experience. Navigating the Green Book offers a glimpse into a part of African American history that is not often discussed in classrooms. I would recommend that any one with an interest in history check out the site and see where the Green Book can take you.

Digital Review of Lynching in America

Lynching in America. Created and maintained by The Equal Justice Initiative with support from Google. Reviewed January 27, 2020.

The Lynching in America project is an interactive site targeting an audience of educators as well as Americans more broadly. It was created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization working to fight racial injustice while also providing legal representation to the unjustly incarcerated. Lynching in America’s goal is to educate and relay information regarding the racial terrorism that African Americans endured between the Civil War and World War II. The project also connects the lynchings of the past with more recent forms of racial injustice like the disproportionate sentencing, and the police brutality. The project’s creators hope that by teaching this history the past will not be forgotten and it will not be repeated. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s founder, “we cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”

The project consists of six major sections and visitors can easily navigate directly to any of the six after a short introductory message on the home screen. The top three sections contain personal stories and interactive maps while the bottom three contain lesson plans and teaching tools for educators along with information about EJI and their organization’s mission.

A couple of the personal stories connect living family members with one of their family members who was lynched in the past. The videos highlight how senseless and brutal the attacks on African Americans were and how the violence affected those who knew them. Learning that no punishment came to those committing the acts is even more heartbreaking to witness. There is also a video about Anthony Hilton, a man who served thirty years in jail for a crime he did not commit. The officers made it clear that his incarceration was based on his racial identity. The videos are well produced and invoke a range of emotions from sadness to anger to frustration that such systemic racism exists in the modern era. By including Mr. Hilton’s story, the site purposes to show “lynching” can take different forms.

The interactive map section is visually appealing and simple to navigate. The map highlights counties where lynching occurred in different hues of red. By clicking on a highlighted county, the visitor sees how many people were lynched in that county. The map does not tell you anything about the victims lynched in that county unlike Monroe Work Today ( which gives details about the victims and their alleged crime. Since databases exist with such data, the info was willfully not included or perhaps an oversight by the site editors. The project is clearly well-researched as the site contains over 300 footnotes but it would be beneficial to include some of the additional data on the people who were lynched.

The inclusion of lesson plans for educators is a useful tool. However, because the project only presents evidence and stories regarding the injustice of African Americans, it alienates the Mexican American and other ethnicities who were victims of racial violence and systemic oppression. For a project called Lynching in America, the American experience the site describes is not inclusive of all marginalized groups. Martin Luther King reminds us:

 “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I’m not sure if EJI ever plans to expand this project, but further additions would be welcome. It is a well-done project for many reasons. The facts provided are solid. The various video narratives are deeply moving, and the camerawork is exceptional. The information provided on the Great Migration of African American from the South to the North is well written. I am certain that EJI advocates for all people and it would be great if the Lynching in America project reflected that ideology more clearly.