Iycee Charles de Gaulle Summary The first African Americans in California Essay

The first African Americans in California Essay

Like many people from other parts of the world, African Americans have come to the United States, specifically to seek greener pastures, so to speak. Through the years, the state of California has become a place that has deep roots of very rich African American history in its soil.

Africans are just about the most disriminated group of people in the world. Most of them have started out working as slaves. In seeking to find freedom, they fled to different parts of the world where they believe they will truly be free from any form of oppression, free to be what they want to be. One of these places was California.  (Magagnini, 1998)

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African Americans have long been a presence in the United States.  The proliferation of African American population to California dates back to the [1]Spanish, [2]Mexican eras of colonization and World War II. A lot of African freemen were among those who helped establish [3]pueblos during that time.  Among the first settlers in the state of California were black Americans (The Bancroft Library , 2005).

The population of African Americans in California started out small.  To make a living, most started they tended farms, worked in the mines, and had businesses of their own.  African Americans were often discriminated upon.  The pre-Civil War years saw how they were denied of most of their rights. The population of  African Americans had increased as years went by and started to allow their formidable presence felt in society specifically in the fields of politics, sports, business and entertainment. Inspite of these accomplishments, prejudice and discrimination against black Americans have remained a big issue. They weren’t given equal rights and opportunities as  the local Americans. (learncalifornia.org, 2007) This was true with regard to the matter of finding employment, owning property and other basic human needs. Even children were not spared of this tragedy.  At their very tender age, children learned how difficult it is to survive in the world as (learncalifornia.org, 2007)

The California gold rush was a very significant period of time in African American history. This particular time signalled the beginning of major developments in the life and history of African Americans in California and the United States as a whole.

During the period of the California gold rush, gold became the great equalizer. It allowed people to buy food, clothing, property and just about anything that they needed. At that time, it gave people their place in the world. With the gold rush creating a large demand for workers, thousands of African Americans came to California with hopes of improving their lives.

For most African Americans who come from very oppressed backgrounds, gold was the symbol of freedom. Stephen Magagnini wrote that apart from giving them the basic necessities in life, gold had the capability to grant them freedom from slavery. (Magagnini, 1998)

With gold dust, many African Americans who were slaves were able to buy their way to freedom from the chains of slavery.  The freemen were able to use gold to improve their lives. Using gold to their advantage, they were able to put up schools and churches, start newspapers and set other African Americans free.  Because of this, the children were able to study and the people were able to worship without the fear of being treated unfairly.  Freemen also used gold to free other slaves. The California gold rush was truly a significant period of time for African Americans as it was during this time that they were able to be a major force in California. Magagni wrote that during the gold rush, although they a small part of the community, the African Americans were among the most educated and influential people in California.   (Magagnini, 1998)

For African Americans, the fight against racial injustices and discrimination has been a long and hard. In fact, although the condition regarding racial prejudice towards African Americans had significantly improved, to this very day discrimination still remains a problem. [4]Rudolph M. Lapp wrote in his article “Negro Rights Activities in Gold Rush California “ that the African Americans roughly comprised only one percent of California’s population during the gold rush. Although they were small number, this did not stop them from being a major force in the region. There were very little to no organized groups to monitor and fight against slavery and oppression during that time. The fight for freedom was a very personal experience for most black Americans then. There were those who fought tooth and nail for their rights on their own  and there were those who were fortunate enough to get help from free African Americans. The plight of these people never failed to touch the hearts of many. Many lawyers and judges among whom were white, took notice. They were able to extend legal help to those who were experiencing oppression or were treated unfairly.   There are numerous accounts of the challenges they faced as “colored” people amidst their white counterparts.  The African American people were and are still very well known for their courage in the face of adversity.   (Lapp, 1966)

[5]William Alexander Leidesdorff of the Virgin Islands was known as one of the movers and shakers in San Francisco. He first came to America to New Orleans. He established himself as a businessman in the maritime industry. Having done well in business, he went on a journey that took him to the San Francisco Bay. He landed at the Yerba Buena cove. Leidesdorff found a whole new world of opportunities in Yerba Buena.  Upon seeing that the whole place was yet to be developed, he stayed there and established several commercial establishments. (Thurman, 1952)

In his short residency of 7 years in San Francisco, his influence brought about commercial developments. His involvement in politics strengthened the role of the African American people in San Francisco. He earned the reputation of being the most affluent and one of the most influential men who helped build the city by providing employment through his business ventures. More than his contributions to society in the San Francisco area, he became one of the symbols of early black American pride in California. (Thurman, 1952)

Leidesdorff’s productive stay brought him great successes in the field of business and politics. Perhaps among the most well known of his accomplishments in the field of business was that he earned the honor of being able to launch the first steamboat to set sail on San Francisco Bay. (Thurman, 1952)

In spite of Leidesdorff’s efforts, noteworthy contributions and the indelible mark he made as a citizen of San Francisco, it is very interesting to note that there was never a memorial created for his as one of the greatest pioneers in the area.  (National Park Service, 2004)

California’s 1849 constitutional convention marked the establishment of the State of California. A state constitution was drafted and a state government was created.  (Denger, 2005)

This significant development in the political history of California did little to help the condition or the treatment of African Americans in the area. If anything, it further proved that the white Americans considered their black counterparts not as welcome additions to their community as equals but as second class citizens as well as threats to their race and competition.

The 1849 constitution included a provision that stated “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of a crime shall ever be tolerated in the State.”. This did not stop the unfair treatment towards African Americans. Discrimination and other injustices towards black Americans still prevailed in the community.  (National Park Service , 2004)

They did not make it easy for the black people in the area as they made pieces of legislation that proved very oppressive which often would put African American citizens in compromised situations. Among these abusive policies were: “black people had no right to:  testify in court against a White person, receive a public education, homestead public lands or vote.”  (National Park Service, 2004)

Such of these policies were put in place to purposely circumscribe California’s black citizens.

The political changes that magnified the unfair treatment given to African Americans were met with movements and protests to repeal the unfair government policies.

The black people became personally involved in fighting for equalities in society. Among the issues were: the status of slaves, freemen, education, right to own property, the right to defend himself in court especially against a white person, among others.

Also noticeable is the fact that in spite of various social processes that involved and produced many great black Americans, their white contemporaries refused to acknowledge their accomplishments.

Such is the plight of the African Americans that the fight and journey towards freedom continues until today.


Denger, M. (2005, April 18). Early California California’s Constitutional Convention of 1849. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from The California State Military Museum: http://www.militarymuseum.org/Constitution.html

Lapp, R. M. (1966, March ). Negro Rights Activities in Gold Rush California. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from The virtual museum of the city of San Francisco: http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist6/blackrights.html

learncalifornia.org. (2007). African Americans in California History . Retrieved March 6, 2007, from learncalifornia.org: http://www.learncalifornia.org/doc.asp?id=1642

Magagnini, S. (1998, January 18). Fortune smiled on many black miners. Retrieved March 6, 2007, from Gold Rush : http://www.calgoldrush.com/part3/03blacks.html

Medical News Today . (2006, November 1). Discrimination Contributes To African-American Health Disparities. Retrieved March 6, 2007, from Medical News Today : http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=55345

National Park Service . (2004, November 17). A History of Black Americans in California . Retrieved March 6, 2007, from National Park Service : http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/5views/5views2.htm

National Park Service . (2004, November 17). A History of Black Americans in California: Industry . Retrieved March 7, 2007, from National Park Service : http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/5views/5views2c.htm

National Park Service. (2004, November 17). A.M.E. CHURCH. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from National Park Service: http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/5views/5views2a.htm

The Bancroft Library . (2005). Historical Timelines – The Bancroft Library – University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved March 6, 2007, from African Americans in California : http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/reference/africanamerican/timelines.html

Thomson Gale . (n.d.). Events in African American History. Retrieved March 6, 2007, from Thomson Gale : http://www.gale.com/free_resources/bhm/timeline/

Thurman, S. B. (1952). WILLIAM ALEXANDER LEIDESDORFF. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from Museum of the City of San Francisco: http://www.sfmuseum.org/bio/leidesdorff.html

Wikipedia . (2007, March 6). Spanish colonization of the Americas. Retrieved March 6, 2007, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_colonization_of_the_Americas

[1] The reign of the Spanish Colonial Empire started with the arrival of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) in 1492.  (Wikipedia , 2007)
[2] The Mexican Era was from 1820-1846
[3] Pueblos are flat-topped buildings of many rooms, an ancient form of Native housing, in the American southwest.
[4] Winner of the 1979 California Historical Society Award of Merit. Rudolph M. Lapp is professor of history emeritus at the College of San Marco in California.(Yale University Press)

[5] He was the son of William Leidesdorff, a Danish sugar planter, and Anna Marie Spark, a native woman having African blood.