February 24, 2022

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Accused Killer Escaped Murder Conviction Because Witnesses Were Black

In 1861, a white man shot and killed a prominent Black businessman in San Francisco’s financial district in full view of witnesses. But since all the witnesses were African American, they were legally banned from testifying in court.

Today, the ACLU of Northern California released the second episode of our Gold Chains podcast, “Black Testimony Matters,” which examines the state’s little-known testimony laws and their legacy. In effect from 1850 to 1863, the racist laws prohibited Black, Native American, and Chinese people from testifying in court against white defendants under any circumstances.

It was one of many efforts by the state’s founders to create a whites-only California by discouraging Black migration to the West.

“The Legislature even tried to block African-American migration to California five times between 1849 and 1858,” said Dana Weiner, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and a guest on the episode.

The Gold Chains podcast is a follow-up to Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California, a multimedia public education website that we produced in 2019, to examine California’s complicity in the enslavement of African American and Indigenous people. Our pilot episode focused on the California Fugitive Slave Law that allowed enslavers to recapture Black people and force them back into bondage even though California’s constitution banned slavery.

The Gold Chains project is especially timely now that California has created a task force – the first of its kind in the country – to examine the state’s role in the enslavement of Black people and create proposals for reparations.

Black Testimony Matters” introduces listeners to the Black men and women who fought to overturn the testimony laws and claim full citizenship rights. And we examine the testimony laws’ legacy of racism that continues to infect our legal system.

Visit the Gold Chains podcast page here.
Listen to Episode 2: 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.