Investigating California’s Complicity in Slavery

Shirley Weber, then an assemblywoman from San Diego and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, was tired of waiting for the federal government to address the issue of reparations for African Americans. Former Michigan Congressman John Conyers had first introduced H.R. 40, a bill that would create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals for Black Americans, in 1989.

Conyers had re-introduced the same bill every year for 30 years, but it had run into a wall of opposition in the Congress from those who insisted that descendants of enslaved Black people should forget the past and move on. H.R. 40 takes its name from the federal government’s broken promise to provide every newly freed enslaved person with 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction. It has since been revived in the House of Representatives.

Four months after Conyers’ death in 2019, Weber introduced a state reparations bill, AB 3121, modeled after H.R. 40. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law in September 2020. It created a 9-person task force to examine California’s complicity in slavery and come up with proposals for reparations. It’s the first commission of its kind in the country. “We thought if the United States can’t do it, California surely can,” said Weber, who is now secretary of state. “The nation is watching.”

The members will study the history of slavery in the Golden State, its legacy of anti-Black laws, and their continuing impact today on the economic life of African Americans. Reparations could take the form of direct cash payments, educational subsidies, low-interest loans, and other measures to help level the playing field for Black people who have been shut out of economic opportunities in California for more than 170 years because of racially discriminatory state-sanctioned policies. The task force will hold public hearings and present a report of its findings to the legislature by June of 2022.

Another major goal of AB 3121 is to educate Californians about this dark chapter of California history and its legacy of white supremacy. “So that people understand and don’t become angry that people are getting something quote, for “free,” Weber said. AB 3121 was inspired in part by the Gold Chains project.

Reparations Task Force

Photo: Men on a railroad handcar in California’s Sierra Nevada, circa 1875.
Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

We thought if the United States can’t do it, California surely can,” said Weber, who is now secretary of state. “The nation is watching.”
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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.