August 12, 2021

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Enslavement of Black People Erased from Official Histories of “Free State”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Many schoolchildren are taught that California came into the Union as a “free” state and never had slavery. But that story is a lie.

Today, the ACLU of Northern California launched Gold Chains, a new podcast that debunks that myth and documents the little-known history of California’s complicity in the enslavement of African Americans.

“This history has been erased from the schoolbooks,” said Candice Francis, communications director at the ACLU of Northern California. “People who live in California and are raised and educated here, do not learn this history.”

The pilot Gold Chains episode, “California Fugitive Slave Law,” examines a racist law that allowed white slaveholders to recapture formerly enslaved African Americans and terrorized the Black community.

There was always that fear of a mob coming to take you away in the middle of the night,” said Taylor Bythewood-Porter, an assistant curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, and a guest on the show. “Enslaved and free African Americans who arrived in California could easily fall victim to fraud and kidnapping.”

Gold Chains is especially timely. Last year, California passed AB 3121, a law that created a new task force to study California’s role in the enslavement of Black people and to develop proposals for reparations. The 9-person task force began meeting in June 2021 and will present its final report to the legislature in June of 2022.

One of the goals of AB 3121 is to help educate Californians about the state’s slavery history so that people can make the connections between the past and demands today for reparations.

“We cannot separate the things that people are crying for in the streets in terms of justice from what has happened in the past,” said Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who sponsored AB 3121, when she was an assemblywoman.

The Gold Chains podcast is a spin-off of our earlier public education project, Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California. We launched the multimedia website in 2019 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, VA, which is the symbolic beginning of slavery in the American colonies.

Visit the Gold Chains podcast page here.
Listen to the Gold Chains trailer
Listen to Episode 1: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Soundcloud


The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has been a guardian of justice, fairness, equality and freedom, working to protect and advance civil liberties for all Californians. For more information visit:

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.