California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

California’s slavery reparations task force and the lessons of history

The nine members of California’s reparations task force have a monumental job before them. They have already conducted a detailed investigation into the history of anti-Black discrimination in the United States; they’re also expected to make a formal recommendation to the California legislature as to who will be eligible for reparations and how such a program should be enacted. Members of the task force have consulted experts in history, law, economics, urban studies, and more. They’ve made much of their work publicly accessible through livestreamed meetings and their “Interim Report,” released this June.[1]

Don’t be fooled by the title. The report is only “interim” in that it precedes the committee’s final policy recommendations, to be issued next summer. But there’s nothing provisional about it. The report is a sweeping, painstaking, 500-page history of state-sponsored discrimination against African Americans, in California and nationally. It details 170 years of government policies and individual actions that deprived African Americans of their liberty, labor, wealth, land, education, and often their lives. “White supremacy,” the report underlines, “is a persistent badge of slavery that continues to be embedded today in numerous American and Californian legal, economic, and social and political systems.” The document is a difficult but necessary lesson in history.[2]

Earlier this year, the task force made headlines with a closely contested vote over who would be eligible for reparations. By a 5-4 margin, the commission decided to limit eligibility to those who can trace their ancestry to an enslaved person or to a free Black person who arrived in the United States prior to the turn of the 20th century. Kamilah Moore, the chair of the task force, argued that a reparations program based on lineage rather than race would have the best chance of surviving a legal challenge. A specific plan for how reparations would be allocated – whether in the form of cash payments, baby bonds, land transfers, tuition assistance, or other methods – is yet to be determined.[3]

African American man standing over gold mining claim in California.
Unidentified Black man in Gold Rush California in 1852. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Although California’s task force is the first of its kind, the campaign for reparations has deep roots. From the moment they were emancipated, freedpeople demanded recognition for their service to the country. They argued that generations of unpaid labor coupled with their loyalty to the United States during the Civil War entitled them to some form of compensation – ideally land. Some freedpeople received small parcels, most famously the beneficiaries of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15. By Sherman’s orders, thousands of formerly enslaved people received confiscated Confederate land along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, divided into parcels of not more than 40 acres.[4]

But the program was short-lived. When President Andrew Johnson began pardoning ex-Confederates en masse, most of that land was taken from freedpeople and returned to Southern rebels. The federal government gave far more land to Gilded Age railroad corporations than to freedpeople and their descendants.[5] Black people continued advocating, however. Callie House, a formerly enslaved woman, organized a national reparations movement and, in 1915, sued the U.S. Treasury Department for $68 million. House’s claim was struck down by the US Supreme Court.[6]

For the past century-and-a-half, a meaningful reparations program has remained, more or less, a pipe dream. But that could change, beginning with California.

That California is leading the nation in the campaign for slavery reparations may seem curious to some. California, after all, was a free state, far distant from the plantations of the Deep South, where the majority of America’s enslaved population labored. Furthermore, California remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. The Golden State has only a tenuous link to the history of American slavery – or so it would seem.

But, as a growing group of scholars have revealed, California was a free state in name only.

Beginning in 1849, white Southerners joined the international rush to the gold diggings around Sacramento. Hundreds of them brought enslaved Black laborers with them. Even after the ratification of California’s antislavery constitution in 1850, many African Americans remained in bondage within the state.[7]

California’s lawmakers enabled and empowered the slaveholders in their midst. A Mississippi planter-cum-California politician named William Gwin served as the state’s ranking U.S. Senator through most of the antebellum era. He stuffed California’s lucrative federal positions with his Southern-born friends, ensuring that a cabal of proslavery partisans would control the political fortunes of the Far West. The California Supreme Court, too, was a haven for white Southern transplants. Five of the seven justices who sat on the state supreme court between 1852 and 1857 hailed from the slave South, while even one of the Northerners was a supporter of the slaveholding extremist John C. Calhoun. In dozens of cases between 1852 and 1855, California’s courts rejected the freedom claims of Black Americans and remanded them to their purported owners.[8]

When the Civil War broke out, those proslavery powerbrokers threatened California’s loyalty to the Union. General Edwin Vose Sumner, the commander of the U.S. Department of the Pacific, estimated that there were thousands of would-be rebels in the state. While “there is a strong Union feeling with the majority of the people of this State,” Sumner reported, “the secessionists are much the most active and zealous party.”[9] Rebel activity was so strong in Southern California that the U.S. was compelled to construct a military complex, known as Drum Barracks, just outside Los Angeles. Thousands of U.S. troops passed through Drum Barracks over the course of the war.[10]

Southern sympathies persisted into the postwar period and threatened the hard-won rights of Black Californians. The California Democratic Party swept back to power in 1867 on an anti-Black, anti-Chinese, and anti-Reconstruction platform. Governor Henry Haight castigated Republican efforts to protect freedpeople in the South. He likened Reconstruction to military despotism, which devolved “political control to a mass of negroes just emancipated and almost as ignorant of political duties as the beasts of the field.”[11] California was the only free state that refused to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments during the Reconstruction era. The state legislature didn’t ratify those amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively.[12]

Whether California will pass a reparations package to address some of these injustices remains to be seen. If so, it would be a historic achievement in a nation that has long resisted such measures. The members of the task force have already made a powerful case with their interim report. And, as that report makes clear, any path to reparations must begin with a lesson in history.

[1] Lil Kalish, “California’s reparations task force explained,” Cal Matters, April 13, 2022 https://calmatters.org/california-divide/2022/04/californias-reparations-task-force/; Kevin Waite, “Why California’s slavery reparations task force has the power to transform us all,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2021. For a catalogue of the task force’s public meetings, see https://oag.ca.gov/ab3121/meetings.

[2] “Interim Report,” California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, June 2022: https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/media/ab3121-reparations-interim-report-2022.pdf

[3] “California reparations to be limited to descendants of enslaved people, taskforce decides,” The Guardian, March 30, 2022; “California’s reparations effort moves ahead: Here’s what’s next,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2022.

[4] William Tecumseh Sherman, Special Field Order No. 15, fulltext available via Blackpast at: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/special-field-orders-no-15/ For particularly poignant appeals for land, see the letters of the freedpeople of Edisto Island, in Ira Berlin, Steven Hahn, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, Leslie S. Rowland, “The Terrain of Freedom: The Struggle Over the Meaning of Free Laboru in the U.S. South,” History Workshop Journal 22:1 (Autumn 1986), 127-129.

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); see also, James L. Roark, Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press (New York: Norton, 1977); White, Richard, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

[6] Mary Frances Berry, My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Knopf, 2005).

[7] Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[8] Waite, West of Slavery, 91-122; Smith, Freedom’s Frontier, 47-79; and Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[9] Sumner to Colonel E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. L, Part 1, p. 472.

[10] Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Waite, West of Slavery, 181-208.

[11] Henry H. Haight, Inaugural Address of H.H. Haight, Governor of the State of California, at the Seventeenth Session of the Legislature, and Special Message of Governor H.H. Haight, of California Declining to Transmit Senate Resolutions Condemnatory of President Johnson (New York: Douglas Taylor’s Democratic Book and Job Printing Office, 1868), 9-10.

[12] Kevin Waite, “Reconstruction in the American West,” in Andrew L. Slap, ed., The Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Kevin A. Waite

Kevin Waite is a political historian of the 19th-century United States with a focus on slavery, imperialism, and the American West at Durham University (UK). His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire (UNC Press, 2021), won the 2022 Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.

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