November 14, 2019

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ACLU of Northern California, KQED, the California Historical Society and Equal Justice Society Announce “Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU NC) today launched “Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California,” a public education campaign that exposes chapters of California’s history that may come as a surprise, if not an outright shock, to many people. Little known is the fact that, while California entered the Union as a “free” state under the Compromise of 1850, slavery was rampant. In fact, local and state governments passed laws that made it perfectly legal for white settlers to hold black and Native people in bondage – even children. This despite the fact that the state constitution banned slavery. The first California governor tried unsuccessfully to ban black people from the state.

Through multimedia narratives, public records, news articles, and archival material, the campaign uncovers California’s hidden history and its legacy in California’s courts, culture, and conscience. Gold Chains ( examines the underbelly of the popular narrative of California as the proverbial “Golden State” of opportunity. It also exposes 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 in California. Gold Chains is a partnership between the ACLU of Northern California, KQED, the California Historical Society, and the Equal Justice Society.

“Confronting the misdeeds of our collective past enables us to secure a more just future for generations to come,” said Candice Francis, communications director for the ACLU of Northern California. “Gold Chains reinforces the integrated advocacy that the ACLU of Northern California practices daily. Our efforts to take on critical issues and sometimes unpopular positions in order to advance civil rights and civil liberties exemplifies our commitment to equal justice for all.”

Gold Chains highlights California’s slavery past which often goes overlooked. It pushes California to become truly aware about the brutal treatment black and Native people endured, and how it shaped the California we know today. 2019 marks the 400th year since enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and were sold to colonists, beginning centuries of bondage and servitude. California had its own version of black people as chattel laboring in cotton fields, stalked by an overseer.

Like “King Cotton,” the commodity that drove the slave trade on the eastern seaboard, the Gold Rush era in California during the 1800s led to the persistent dehumanization of black people, and simultaneously forced Native people off their remaining land, destroying their ecosystems for generations to come.

“Many people don’t know that in 1852, California passed its own Fugitive Slave Law, legalizing the forced deportation of black Californians back to the South if a white person made a claim, true or not, that they were their “property,” said Susan D. Anderson, director of programming for the California Historical Society. “These historical markers are omitted from state lore and school curricula, yet they offer critical, concrete examples of California’s complicity in racial tyranny.”

The project lifts up the voices of courageous people who challenged their brutal treatment and demanded their civil rights. There are narratives about enslaved African American men and women who fought for their freedom in the courts, journalists, business people and others in the black community who joined forces to fight anti-black laws, and about Native people who rebelled against their enslavement.

The story of slavery in California pre-dates statehood, with the incursion of Europeans in the 1700s who enslaved the Native population, seized land, raped women, infested tribes with disease, and force-fed Catholicism.

Eva Paterson, president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society, said: “Authentic and deep engagement with Gold Chains will require humility and a strong disposition for hard truths. In a time when we are grappling with the normalization of white supremacy, this unflinching story of our collective past is necessary.”

Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California is available at


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:


KQED serves the people of Northern California with a public-supported alternative to commercial media. An NPR and PBS affiliate based in San Francisco, KQED is home to one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the nation, one of the highest-rated public television services and an award-winning education program helping students and educators thrive in 21st-century classrooms. A trusted news source and leader and innovator in interactive technology, KQED takes people of all ages on journeys of exploration — exposing them to new people, places and ideas.


Founded in 1871, the California Historical Society (CHS) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to make California’s richly diverse past a meaningful part of their contemporary lives. In 1979 Governor Jerry Brown designated CHS the official historical society of the State of California. Today, CHS enacts its mission with a wide range of library, exhibition, publication, education, and public outreach programs that explore the complex and continuing history of the state and represent the diversity of the California experience, past and present. Our treasured collection— documenting the history of the entire state from the Spanish Era to the present day—is brought to life through these innovative public history projects that expand and diversify our audience and broaden our public impact. Learn more at


The Equal Justice Society transforms the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts. Led by President Eva Paterson, our legal strategy aims to broaden conceptions of present-day discrimination to include unconscious and structural bias by using social science, structural analysis, and real-life experience. For more information:

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.