Monday, March 20, 2023

Gordon on Slavery in California

Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania, has posted Unlikely Freedom: Slavery, Race, and Law in Antebellum California:

Slavery in a free state, such as California, was far more common than we have recognized -- its place in history has long been underestimated.

This article tells the story of a key freedom suit in Los Angeles in 1856. Fourteen women and children were freed at the conclusion of the case -- but by default, rather than a formal decision. Their slaveholder fled, abandoning his claim. Yet this case changed lives, especially those whose freedom was achieved. Others also took their freedom when they learned of the outcome in this case.

But the law of slavery in California supported white slaveholders, and the emancipation of all those held in slavery by the state's largest slaveholder was unpopular among southern California's proslavery Democrats. The women and children involved in the case included a remarkable midwife, healer, and philanthropist -- Biddy Mason, whose life and achievements were essential to the growth of Los Angeles, especially its free Black community. At her death in 1891, Mason was renowned and beloved, her capacity to give matched by her own success.

Recovering this story of freedom in California highlights the slaveholding of white migrants, particularly in San Bernardino, the Latter-day Saints' colony , where Biddy, her family, and many others labored in slavery. California's Supreme Court established a strong proslavery jurisprudence -- but a local judge in Los Angeles had presided over a case that ended in emancipation. The judge was widely criticized, and his work in the case has not been studied. Yet the result changed Los Angeles and undermined slavery in its most prosperous farm community, San Bernardino.
--Dan Ernst