A Demand for Equal Rights

At a time when many black people were enslaved, and those who were free had almost no legal protections that any white man was bound to respect, the Colored Conventions were a monumental organizing effort by black people across the country to fight for full citizenship rights.

Colored Conventions

Artistic rendition of Colored Convention in Washington D.C.
The Jim Casey Collection

The first Colored Convention in California was held at St. Andrews AME Church in Sacramento in 1855. Abolitionists and church leaders who had participated in earlier conventions on the East Coast led the proceedings. They called for the abolishment of slavery, voting rights for black men, and the repeal of testimony exclusion laws that made it illegal for black and Native Californians to testify in court against whites. Delegates represented a wide swath of black leadership, including prominent writers, newspaper editors, organizers, and entrepreneurs. The convention leadership established an executive committee to raise funds for their lobbying efforts. Progress was slow. California’s Legislature ignored petitions to repeal the testimony exclusion laws and enabled anti-black racism and slavery to flourish in the “free” state. In 1863, the Legislature finally overturned the ban on black testimony after an eight-year campaign by Colored Convention delegates. The Convention met for the last time in California in 1865, and would serve as an inspiration for later civil rights movements.

Philip Alexander Bell Crusading Black Journalist
Philip Alexander Bell was a pioneering African American journalist who co-founded the Pacific Appeal, one of the first major black newspapers in California. Bell was an anti-slavery activist who had worked on the Liberator with William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most prominent abolitionists at that time. On the fiery editorial pages of the Pacific Appeal, Bell and his partner Peter Anderson demanded the repeal of racist laws passed by pro-slavery legislators and advocated for equal rights for black people. After the two men had a dispute and parted ways, Bell founded the weekly Elevator. Its slogan was “Equality Before the Law.” The Elevator lobbied for the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments which abolished slavery, granted black people equal protection under the law and gave black men the legal right to vote. Bell’s work, along with that of the broader black press, provided an important forum for black people to organize against slavery and advocate for civil rights.

George Gordon, a prominent Colored Convention delegate, was murdered by a white man in 1861. During his killer’s trial, the court refused to allow the testimony of black eyewitnesses. To hear his story, click here.

The story of the George Gordon killing

A petition for legal recognition of Black Californians

A petition for legal recognition of Black Californians AD, 1852-62? (p.2 of 3), MS 169A; California Historical Society

George Gordon newspaper clipping

The Crime of
Testimony Laws

George Gordon, a black barber was shot to death by a white man in full view of witnesses in his San Francisco shop. A judge refused to allow the testimony of blacks because of their race. The killer got a lighter sentence as a result.

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Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

Exodus to
British Columbia

After waging a long battle against California’s anti-black laws, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a prominent civil rights activist and entrepreneur in San Francisco, helped lead a migration of several hundred African Americans to Victoria, British Columbia.

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Mary Ellen Pleasant

Mother of California
Civil Rights Movement

Mary Ellen Pleasant was a self-made millionaire and leading abolitionist based in San Francisco during the Gold-Rush era.

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Biddy Mason

From Enslaved
to Entrepreneur

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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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.