State Should Apologize For California's Slave Past

A year ago, it was revealed that for decades California involuntarily sterilized thousands. Now another one of California's dirty secrets is out in the open: The state has a slave past. Researchers at Cal State University Sacramento have dug up court records in which slaves sued their masters for freedom, found newspaper accounts of slave escapes, and ads that offered slaves for sale, and accounts of fights by abolitionist groups to prevent the return of fugitive slaves to their masters. So far, researchers have found 200 to 300 slaves that worked in the state's mining industry. These racially incriminating documents shatter the myth that from the time of statehood in 1849, California was the land of hope, opportunity and racial tolerance.

This isn't the first time California's slave past has been documented. Two years ago, the California Department of Insurance listed the names of hundreds of slaves and their masters in California, and produced copies of insurance policies taken out on them. This was virtual smoking gun proof that some insurance companies profited mightily from slavery in California.

Though California did not formally encode slavery in the state constitution, slave traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers and mine owners, profited off it. Their ill-gotten profits helped fuel the state's economic growth. Throughout the 1850s, the California state legislature tightened the Slave South's grip on the state. It passed a state fugitive slave law, and barred blacks from giving testimony against whites in criminal and civil cases. The state Supreme Court upheld California's Fugitive Slave Law a few years later.

Pro-slavery legislators also attempted to register all free blacks and bar black immigration into the state. The measure was barely defeated. For decades after the Civil War, blacks were excluded from unions and the trades, confined to the dirtiest, poorest paying jobs, and forced to live in rigidly segregated neighborhoods and attend segregated schools.

The horrifying legacy of slavery continues to racially pulsate in California. In the late 1990s, the California Assembly Commission on the Status of the African-American Males reported that four out of ten felons entering California prisons are young black males. Despite the recent Census figures that show a modest jump in the number of black two-parent households, less than half of lower income black males under age twenty-one still live in two parent households.

A study by the Institute for Health Policy Studies, a San-Francisco based public policy institute, in 2000, found that blacks in California were four times likelier to have poverty level households, nearly twice as likely to have been laid off, and to report racial discrimination than whites. They were also twice as likely to report fair or poor health status as whites.

In its annual surveys of bank lending practices, Greenlining, a San Francisco based public advocacy group, has repeatedly found that California's largest banks make only a pitiable number of conventional home loans to blacks in Los Angeles County. This prevents thousands of middle-income, credit worthy blacks from purchasing homes. The lag in home ownership further widens the gap in wealth between blacks and whites. Meanwhile, the number of black students trapped in failing, under-performing, and underserved public schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, continued to rise, black test scores continued to wallow at the bottom of the nation's educational barrel.

This demands an apology. And there is ample precedent for state and federal governments issuing apologies and payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two decade long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930's by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs. They got $10 million from the government and an apology from Clinton They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.

The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to apologize and to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to pay and apologize. The Oklahoma state legislature continues to debate whether to apologize and pay reparations to the black survivors of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Aetna insurance, which was fingered for writing slave policies, apologized and noted that it does millions in business with minority contractors, and a substantial number of its workers and managers are minorities.

Slavery and its hideous legacy still taint race relations in California, the one state that for so long took false pride in being free of that taint. When California's Eugenics' past was disclosed, then Governor Gray Davis quickly apologized. The state legislature should just as quickly apologize for California's slave past.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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