When most people think of California today we think of Los Angeles, Hollywood and the entertainment business. However, when Peter Burnett spoke in Sacramento in 1849, he faced a group of men determined to take California from an upstart territory to a state. Burnett had been elected the state’s first governor just one day before and addressed legislators the future of Black people in the state.
California had decided to ban the practice of slavery after a heated debate, but the new governor’s vision of the state didn’t include Black residents at all.
“It could be no favor, and no kindness, to permit [free blacks] to settle in the State,” he said, “while it would be a most serious injury to us….Had they been born here, and had acquired rights in consequence, I should not recommend any measures to expel them…the object is to keep them out.”
Burnett wasn’t the only person who had this view of California banning Black people. In the 1840s and 1850s, California citizens and legislators fought to ensure that free black people would be prohibited from immigrating to or living in California. Their efforts would eventually failed but affected the fear and racism Black people faced in the west during the mid to late 1800’s.
California held both opportunity and danger for people of color, many of whom were freed slaves. An example of this was Elizabeth Flake Rowan who had been freed when she entered California territory. After moving to what is now San Bernardino, Rowan helped build a fort, cared for children and women of her community. Rowan lived with her husband, a barber, and raised three children while working as a laundress. Although she lived a mundane life Rowan was perceived as a threat by Californians who wanted her and others like her excluded from the state altogether.
According to Eugene H. Berwanger, the question of whether to allow free black men to live in California was the only issue that inspired significant debate at California’s constitutional convention. Infulenced by Oregon laws forcing free blacks to leave the state, Morton M. McCarver brought a resolution to exclude free blacks from California as well.
The debate that followed revealed the depth of anti-black ideology in the territory. “Depend on it, you will find the country flooded with a population of free Negroes,” said McCarver, calling that potential wave of immigration “the greatest calamity that could befall California.”
However, McCarver’s proposal was ultimately rejected, but it had a long afterlife even after California became a state.
Burnett’s tenure in office and California legislators attempted to exclude free blacks again and again This issue of allowing Black people in the state only faded when Californians began to worry about Chinese laborers instead of Black people Berwanger notes.
California’s free black people were safe…for now. However, the issue of whether slavery should be introduced in the state remained incendiary. Eventually, it helped fuel the Civil War—and created a climate in which black Californians, though technically free, were anything but welcome.