Artwork courtesy of the Tom Feelings Collection, LLC

California is mired in contradictions.
It has a reputation as the proverbial “Golden State” of opportunity, promise, innovation, and fearless resistance. But there is an inconvenient truth that may surprise anyone who learned that California decried slavery and was admitted to the Union as a “free” state. "Little known is the fact that the state’s founding went hand in hand with official government policies that sanctioned slavery and genocide,” says Abdi Soltani, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, in an audio interview . Laws were passed to force Native people into servitude, while authorities actively encouraged the slaughter of tribes across the state. African Americans toiled as slaves in the mines during the Gold Rush and beyond even though the state constitution banned slavery. Through narratives, public records, archival material and images, this project exposes California’s hidden history and its legacy in the state’s courts, culture, and conscience. Click on the interactive map below to learn more.

Abdi Soltani

"Little known is the fact that the state’s founding went hand in hand with official government policies that sanctioned slavery and genocide."

- Abdi Soltani, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California

Click on the map to learn more about California's hidden history and legacy.

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Gold Rush and
Shattered Dreams

In the first test of California’s Fugitive Slave Law, three formerly enslaved black men who had built a lucrative mining supply business were stripped of their freedom and deported back to Mississippi.

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Gold miner

The Crime of
Testimony Laws

George Gordon, a black barber and local civil rights activist in San Francisco, was beaten and shot to death by a white man in full view of witnesses. Eyewitness were not allowed to testify because the law prohibited blacks and "mulattoes" from giving testimony against whites. As a result, Gordon's killer served a mere two years in prison.

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George Gordon newspaper clipping



RACIAL SCIENCE IN A SAN FRANCISCO COURTROOM
The story of the George Gordon killing
Narrated by Martin Luther McCoy

Artwork courtesy of the Tom Feelings Collection, LLC

Peter Hardeman Burnett

White Supremacist
In Chief

The first elected governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, advocated for the genocide of Native people and tried to ban blacks from the state.

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Biddy Mason

From Enslaved
to Entrepreneur

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was brought as a slave to California. She sued for her freedom and her family's and won in what became a landmark court case.

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Kate Camden family portrait

Rosa: Kidnapped,
Sold, and Killed

Looking to satisfy demands for cheap household labor, California passed a law that encouraged the kidnapping of Native Children.

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Indian Boarding Schools

Cultural
Genocide

"Kill the Indian ... and save the man" was the founding mission of Indian Boarding Schools, a massive government project that warehoused thousands of children in state-run institutions.

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Explore all stories

The mission of Gold Chains is to uncover the hidden history of slavery in California by lifting up the voices of courageous African American and Native American individuals who challenged their brutal treatment and demanded their civil rights, inspiring us with their ingenuity, resilience, and tenacity. We aim to expose the role of the courts, laws, and the tacit acceptance of white supremacy in sanctioning race-based violence and discrimination that continues into the present day. Through an unflinching examination of our collective past, we invite California to become truly aware and authentically enlightened.