- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Californians like to think of their state as a freewheeling, tolerant place, one that entered the Union back in 1850 unbesmirched by the stain of slavery. But Joe Moore says there’s just one problem with that sunny vision of the past — it isn’t true.

Though it was admitted to the Union as a “free state,” slavery still existed in 1850s California, and Mr. Moore is leading a project to shed light on that history.

His proof is in print: in an 1852 ad announcing the public auction of a black man valued at $300; newspaper accounts of fugitive slaves who were arrested; and, county records certifying slaves bought their freedom from their owners.

When Americans think of the nation’s slave past, they may picture blacks laboring on plantations in the South. But legal slavery existed in the North, too.

In New York, from the early to mid-1700s, slaves were sold on the waterfront near what is now South Street Seaport and at a market on Wall Street, said Steven Jaffe, historian and curator at the New York Historical Society.

By the middle of the 19th century, California had become the hot spot of the nation’s debate over slavery.

Under the Compromise of 1850, California entered the Union as a “free state,” though as researchers have found, the reality for early black pioneers was far more complex — with the slavery situation dependent on the willingness of local authorities to enforce the law.

Mr. Moore and a team of researchers have uncovered overlooked pieces of California’s past after months of digging through the archives of museums, historical societies and libraries across the state.

Mr. Moore and researchers at California State University at Sacramento have been converting the documents into digital files, and plan to post them on the Internet. When completed, the new online archive will provide insight into the challenges blacks faced in California of the 1800s.

“The story that’s being told is the diversity and richness and the determination of a small community in the 19th century,” said Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a history professor at Sacramento State who is supervising student researchers and is married to Joe Moore.

After gold was discovered near Sutter’s Fort in 1848, blacks joined a stampede of others migrating West, hoping to strike it rich.

For those early black pioneers, the state’s policies appeared promising. California’s first constitution, adopted in 1849, dictated that: “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” A year later, under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted to the Union as a free state.

For blacks and others, California was “a place to come and reinvent themselves,” Mrs. Moore said. “For African-Americans, California represented a place where, at least legally, slavery did not exist.”

But many found California a far cry from the land of opportunity they had envisioned. Officials were unwilling to challenge slaveholders who brought slaves into the state. And other laws, such as one allowing people to bring slaves into the state if they stayed only temporarily, undermined the constitution, Mrs. Moore said.

Thorny issues were often determined individually, through court cases like that of Archy Lee, a slave brought to Sacramento from Mississippi in 1857. Lee’s owner decided to send him back to the South, but Lee disappeared, according to an 1858 article in the Sacramento Daily Union.

Lee was captured, and his cause adopted by abolitionists as a test case for the rights of blacks in the state. They raised money for Lee’s legal defense and eventually he was released.

The tale of Lee and others will be included in the digital archive through letters, family documents, court records, songs and photographs. Researchers have identified about 800 documents, though not all will go online at first.

To collect the 19th-century stories, researchers are using high-tech tools. Equipped with laptops and flatbed scanners, they have traveled to some smaller institutions that have been reluctant to let old, fragile documents out of their sight.

Many of the first documents included in the archive will be newspaper articles.

One, from an 1852 edition of the San Francisco Herald, announces a “Negro For Sale — I will sell at Public Auction a Negro Man,” the ad placed by B.G. Lathrop says, adding that the price is $300. In the ad, Lathrop tells abolitionists he will accept $100 from them — “a great sacrifice in the value of the property” — to see whether they will pay or “play their old game, and try to steal him.”

The articles also depict the struggles of slaves who tried to escape. One Sacramento Union report from 1861 tells of a black man arrested as a slave and brought to the city “in irons.”

Another in the 1854 Sacramento Union asks readers to contact O.R. Rozier, whose slave, Stephen, escaped from a steamship en route to Arkansas.

The Moores also want to tell the stories of individual families, through documents provided by people such as Celeste Rountree. Miss Rountree’s ancestor, Alvin Coffey, earned $7,000 in the mines and used it to buy his wife and two daughters’ freedom, as well as his own.

“When I think of his story, I think if you put your mind to it there’s nothing you can’t accomplish,” said Miss Rountree, who lives in Vallejo, Calif. “Here he is a slave, working to buy his freedom, and he made it happen just on sheer willpower and determination.”

For Mr. Moore, a retired photographer, the project is the result of a lifelong interest in blacks in the West, nurtured by weekend visits to the gold fields.

The debate over California’s admission to the Union as a free state “makes the story more fascinating,” said Mr. Moore, sitting in his Sacramento office, where black-and-white portraits of early black pioneers hang on the walls. “Once you start getting into it, you become hooked into wanting to find out more about the people and the events.”

California State Librarian Kevin Starr agreed, and the project received a $132,000 grant administered by the state library.

“We can glory in the diversity” of California, Mr. Starr said. But “we’ve got some painful things to talk about.”

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