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.

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.

Reparations Task Force

2020 to 2021
Reparations Task Force

California establishes the first ever state task force to study the history of the enslavement of Black people and make recommendations for reparations. The task force began its work in June 2021.

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Native American California Truth & Healing Council

Indian Boarding School

California Gov. Gavin Newsom formally apologizes to Native tribes for the state-sanctioned atrocities committed against them. He issues an executive order that establishes the California Truth and Healing Council to allow Native Americans to “clarify the record” about the relationship between California and the tribes.

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Rosa: Kidnapped,
Sold, & Killed

Kate Camden family portrait

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

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1860 to 1978


Indian Boarding Schools

"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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Listen and learn


The Crime of
Testimony Laws

George Gordon newspaper clipping

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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The story of the George Gordon killing
Narrated by Martin Luther McCoy


Trials & Triumph

Archy Lee

In one of the most celebrated fugitive slave cases in California, Archy Lee, a young black man who had been brought to the state from Mississippi, escaped and waged a successful legal battle for his freedom that went all the way to the federal courts.

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From Enslaved
to Entrepreneur

Biddy Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was brought as a slave to California. When she learned of her legal rights, she sued for freedom for herself and her family and won, in what became a landmark court case.

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Gold Rush &
Shattered Dreams

Gold miner

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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Bloody Island

Bloody Island Massacre

After being enslaved and starved by two white cattle ranchers, Pomo tribe members in Clear Lake rose up and killed their captors. In retaliation, government troops slaughtered as many as 200 Native people.

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Rebel Tongva


A medicine woman of the Tongva nation, Toypurina helped lead a rebellion against Spanish missionaries who invaded her homeland.

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Artwork courtesy of the Tom Feelings Collection, LLC

ACLU Podcast: Indigenous Injustice

The ACLU of Northern California released the third episode of our Gold Chains podcast, “Indigenous Injustice” a timely story that connects the dots between Indigenous child slavery in California to the present.

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Davis Vanguard

The Hidden History of Slavery in California

Through narratives, public records, archival materials, and images, Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California debunks...

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San Francisco Chronicle

California’s Conflicted History on Slavery

To understand the quest for reparations for African Americans in California, supporters say, it’s necessary to take a hard look at the prevalence of slavery in the early days of the “free” state....

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California's Hidden History

The project aims to lift up the voices of courageous African American and Native American individuals who challenged their brutal treatment and demanded their civil rights...

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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.