The presence of African Americans in California dates from the days of Spain and Mexico. By the time California entered the Union, African Americans comprised a small but vital community. They mined, farmed and operated businesses. They were, however, denied most civil rights in the pre–Civil War years. After the war, the population grew slowly, but African Americans still encountered prejudice and hostility.
The number of African Americans in California increased dramatically following the turn of the 20th century. Although old patterns of prejudice persisted, Africans Americans advanced in politics, business, sports and entertainment. School segregation and discrimination in housing were banned, but problems of unemployment, underemployment and racism continue to be addressed in the African American community.
The documents presented here are drawn from a small exhibit prepared for the Second Annual West Coast Summit on African American Genealogy held at the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento on June 15, 2002. They represent a sample of the records relating to African American history in the California State Archives.
Although admitted to the Union as a “free” state in 1850, two years later California adopted a law to return “runaway” slaves to their masters. The case of Robert and Carter Perkins and Sandy Jones was the first to challenge the new law before the California Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the slave owners, but the case marked an initial coming together of African American and white Californians in opposition to the fugitive slave law.
A prominent physician and businessman in the Los Angeles area, Dr. Peter Price Cobbs led an unsuccessful attempt to establish an African-American owned and operated hospital there in the 1940s.
Colorfornia magazine premiered in 1952, a project of San Francisco entrepreneurs W. G. and Pauline Steele.
In 1866, the California State Legislature voted to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery.