Lead Story West Edition

BLACKS IN CALIFORNIA – 1850-1910: Early black settlers sought freedom, opportunity

LOS ANGELES – A quest for freedom, new opportunities and a sunny, tropical climate were among the factors that inspired African Americans to venture west in 19th century America, as the frontier town of Los Angeles transitioned from a Mexico territory to become part of the Union State of California in 1850.

It was not the paradise many hoped to find.

Although California’s new Constitution banned slavery and involuntary servitude, early black settlers – some free, some escaped slaves – faced persistent discrimination and racism in their adopted homeland. State legislation barred blacks, Native Americans, Asians and women from voting, suing or testifying in court – effectively relegating those groups to second-class citizenship, at best.

As a result, the city was a dangerous place for African Americans; a place dominated by many white Southerners who did not respect the law or welcome black residents – especially those who came here free from the shackles of enslavement.  Facing constant intimidation and harassment, African Americans in the city and across California had little or no recourse – legal or otherwise.

Despite these challenges, visionary black men and women braved the months-long journey from southern, midwestern and northeastern states to put down roots in Los Angeles, seize economic opportunities, build communities and work to ratify their status as free Americans.

One of them was Lewis G. Green, a North Carolina native who migrated to California in the late 1850s. Likely inspired by pre-Civil War protests among blacks, Green was among the black pioneers who headed west, ultimately overcoming white opposition to their fight for equal rights and social justice in Los Angeles and California.

By 1860, Green was a successful barber in Los Angeles who – along with early pioneers like Rev. Jesse Hamilton, Bridget “Biddy” Mason and Robert and Winnie Owens – helped build the cultural, civic, spiritual and economic foundation for social change and equality in the city. They helped enslaved blacks gain freedom, built their first church, laid foundations for success and achievement and forged new lives.

They also supported the first organized African-American civil rights struggles in the West in the 1850s and 1860s through statewide Colored Conventions and petition campaigns. Those campaigns fought to overturn anti-discrimination laws and fought for the black community’s rights regarding education, court system testimony, public accommodations, homesteading of public lands and suffrage.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Congress enacted three “Reconstruction” amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the 13th, 14th and 15th – ending slavery, granting full citizenship to America’s black residents and giving black men the right to vote.

On April 16, 1870, four days after black Angelenos celebrated the ratification of voting rights at First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) church, Green helped launch one of the first acts of civic activism under the new law: He walked into County Clerk Thomas D. Mott’s office to register to vote.

Mott refused Green’s request, claiming that the new federal law did not supersede the California state constitution, under which blacks could not vote.

Green and his supporters – both black and white – sued and lost. Judge Ignacio Sepulveda ruled that special legislation would be required to carry out the 15th Amendment “‘as the right to vote cannot be denied to colored men, the qualifications necessary for the clerks to register the individuals of that class [African Americans], are not in any manner prescribed’.”

Before Green and his supporters could mount their next challenge, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation imposing fines and other penalties on municipalities that obstructed, barred or hindered anyone from voting (anyone except women, that is. Women would not get the right to vote in California for another 41 years. It would be another nine years after that before all women in the U.S. could vote).

State officials capitulated, handing Green and his supporters one of the first civil rights victories in state history. On June 21, 1870, Green registered to vote in California, along with three other black men: John Dean, George Van Buren and Nelson Smiley. Several more African American men would register within the year, including John Ballard, William Brown, and Charles Owens.

In a last-ditch sign of protest, county clerk Mott wrote “C” for “colored” next to their registration numbers and noted he had registered the men to vote “per Fifteenth Amendment” in the Great Register of voters.

By 1870, African Americans could celebrate several civil rights victories, including getting the right to vote and to sue and testify in court, winning key battles against oppression and discrimination, establishing strong business and residential communities, and gaining access to public schools for children.  

They found less racism and more socio-economic opportunities than in Southern states, but came to face a complex racial hierarchy in a multi-ethnic environment that was markedly different than what they’d seen in the South.

But growth and progress were not far away.

With the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 and the Santa Fe in the next decade, the rapid growth of Southern California began. By the turn of the century, Los Angeles had grown from an isolated frontier town to a vital West Coast metropolis.

As early as 1910, the city became the center of African-American politics, cultural life and business in California, surpassing San Francisco and Oakland. And the early victories won by Green and other 19th century black settlers inspired other African Americans to travel west, ultimately leading to increased opportunities for advancement and social justice in America’s Golden State.

Next week: Civic activist Sadie Chandler-Cole, an NAACP board member, fought to establish first-class citizenship rights for African-Americans in the early 20th century.