California is a state that is often associated with Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and American opportunism and prosperity. The newfound and prosperous mining economy was a driving force for policy change, and ultimately played a huge role in the admission of California into the Union as a free state. While the rest of the country held its breath, the California Constitutional Convention debated the abolition of slavery in clear economic terms. As Anglo-American miners flooded the state, they found themselves in competition with slaveholders who possessed armies of slave laborers. This unfair advantage caused an outcry for the abolition of slavery, and politicians responded with legislation. As California was declared a free state, John C. Calhoun remarked that the decision would cause a “destruction of the equilibrium between the North and the South, a more intense agitation of the slavery question, a civil war and the destruction of the South.” His foresight was all too keen, as the country did indeed tip forward into war. While the Civil War raged on the other side of the country, a different war took shape in California. Five months before the admittance of California into the Union, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was created to take advantage of a particular loophole in the state’s ban on slavery. The economic void created by the loss of black slave labor was filled by Native American labor, first under the provision of convict labor and then expanded into full indentured servitude through the 1860 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The California legislature therefore continued the economic institution of slavery while remaining a “free” state in name, and did so for another 12 years after declaring chattel slavery illegal—until even five months after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The 1850’s remained a period of massive fluctuation for Californian minorities. As the Fugitive Slave Acts expired, the Indian Acts became more forceful, and blacks slowly gained more and more ground in their fight for rights. In 1855, the first California Colored Convention was held to address issues of discrimination and in essence “marked the beginning of organized civil rights activism in the American West.” The main goals of the first conference were to repeal the law that prohibited blacks from testifying in court and to bolster education throughout the black community. The following Convention in 1856 also focused solely on education and sought to repeal the law that banned black children from public schools, with positive results: blacks in California slowly gained separate but equal educations, and “for a limited period in the 1850s, some school districts admitted black children to common schools…When the Grass Valley Common School opened in 1854, three black children were admitted.” Although these changes were not widely implemented or prevalent throughout California, they nonetheless marked a distinct change in the sociopolitical climate for black citizens. The activism of the Conventions eventually resulted in the repeal of the testimony law in 1863, and by 1864 there were 6 state-supported black schools.