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Exploring the Complicated Legacy of California as a "Free" State

Jean Pfaelzer on California, A Slave State

September 18, 2023| History, Social Science

In California, a Slave State, Jean Pfaelzer exposes how California gorged on slavery, an appetite that persists today in a global trade in human beings lured by promises of jobs but who instead are imprisoned in sweatshops and remote marijuana grows, or sold as nannies and sex workers. In this Q&A, Jean Pfaelzer talks with us about facing California’s slave history as a lifelong Californian, the future of reparations in the state of California, and more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, transcribed from the Yale University Press Podcast. Some questions have been omitted—listen to the full conversation here.

In the broader landscape of your work, this book is an interesting cross section of your scholarship. And, I also had noted that you’re a lifelong Californian. Can you talk more about your drive and inspiration to write this book on California’s history as a slave state?

JP: This was a history that I found, actually, first through an image. A photograph from the early 1880s. It’s a photograph of a young Chinese girl, she looks about twelve to fourteen. She’s young. She’s behind a cage, a wire netting. And, it turns out that she was captured and seized in China, shipped to California, sold on the docks of San Francisco, and taken to be a sexual slave in San Francisco, on Jackson Street, which is very close to the link between Chinatown and white merchant San Francisco. She was kept in this cage as a sex slave working in a Chinese brothel.

I looked at that picture over and over again. I have two daughters, and I just kept saying to myself: What happened to the 13th Amendment? How was this image, taken probably in the early 1880s, possible? For there to be this kind of brutal and very public sexual slavery in California? I had that image in front of me, and I felt like I needed to find out its deeper story. That was one very powerful impetus.

The other was a few years ago, in the local Northern California paper. I saw a notice that a 15-year-old girl had been found locked in a metal box up in Lake County, a very small remote county in Northern California. She’d been picked up on the streets of Hollywood. She was a runaway, she was homeless. She gets in the car with these two guys, and they drive her up to Northern California. They keep her as a slave to sexually service the field workers, and themselves, in the new marijuana grows up in Northern California. And also to trim the buds off of the marijuana plants.

She frees herself. They take her down to the state capitol in Sacramento, lock her in a motel room while they go shopping. She sees a telephone, and she dials 911, and she frees herself. Those two stories of these young women bracket the book, but they also profoundly shaped my sense of why didn’t I know this growing up in California, and how is it possible to still be happening now.

In the prologue, you illuminate the story of T’tc~tsa of the Wailaki People. You tell her story of enslavement, and then share her own narrative of fugitivity, which she had orally dictated. Can talk more about the choice to begin the book with her story, and how she sets the stage for your other discussions of Indian slavery both within the Spanish period and then when California is supposedly a free state.

JP: There were several gifts that T’tc~tsa gave to me and to the book. T’tc~tsa, for people who haven’t read the book, was a 10-year-old girl during the Indian genocide, enacted by the U.S. military in California, to open up California lands for new white settlers. The military comes to her tribe toward the end of the genocide,

around 1860 to 1861. Ironically, now, we can realize the civil war against slavery is happening in the East and in the South.

Just as she is captured, the military come into her village. And typically, they seize the men. They are more afraid of the men and burn the village. They want the land for white ranchers, white settlement, and the women and children take off. And the military chase the women and children. And they rope them, they lead them back to a fort, a very shoddy little wooden fort that they’ve built just to hold these captives. She and her mom are on the run with her kid sister. And eventually she survives in the wilderness.

I was thinking about T’tc~tsa who knew how to survive in the Redwood Forest. She knows how to dig certain bulbs from the ground that are edible, cana lillies. She knows to find safe water by licking the bottom of ferns, she knows it’s rainwater. And she knows how to find little pools in the rivers where she can catch fish with her hands. She carries coal with her at all times, a hot coal so that she never has to start a fire. She knows this. And then she survives.

She’s captured and sold to a hog farmer. She runs away, but she’s smart. She opens the barn door to let out all his horses, so he can’t chase her. She knows how to wade through referrals in the Eel River. And time after time she finds her mom again. Time after time, the US military, sells her from the forts where she’s captured. Finally, she’s on the run. She survives.

When she’s old, in the 1930s, she says this, “White people need to know my story.” And she finds a botanist at one of the reservations, and she insists that the botanist write down her story. When she’s ninety-one years old, she tells us the story of her captivity, her forced sexual service, her being on the run with all these other Indian kids across northern California. She survives and insists that her story be told. . . .So, in my book, I’ve tried to turn to the voices of the enslaved to tell their own story.

Let’s turn to your discussion of legal restrictions, particularly during the first civil rights movement in California. A couple of days ago, NPR ran a story on the Citing Slavery Project, which is a comprehensive online database and map of slave cases, and the modern cases that still cite them today as precedent. In your discussion of California’s first civil rights movement, you do talk in detail about the stifling legal restrictions against African Americans who testify in court against their white perpetrators. I’m wondering if you can bring us into the highlights of this section and talk more about the various anti-slavery gatherings, newspapers, petitions, and conventions that were brewing in California in the mid-1800s.

JP: What happens in California is, with the gold rush, plantation owners transport slaves across the plains, or through the jungles of Panama, and then on ship, up to San Francisco, to work for them in the mine. They [the enslaved] don’t know that they’ve been brought into a free state, or at least by the constitution a free state. What happens in California is that enslaved Blacks meet free Blacks, mainly men and some women, some very powerful women who have come out for the gold rush. They’ve also come out to get away from the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in the east. They’re desperate to get away from the east.

They are free. They come to California and they meet, to their surprise, over two thousand enslaved Blacks who have been transported from the south, from Missouri, Mississippi and Texas, to work for plantation owners. To do the nasty work of digging through the mud and looking for gold up in the Sierra mountains. With this meeting of enslaved and free Blacks, a new civil rights movement, or the first civil rights movement, is formed.

But their needs are different. For the enslaved Blacks, they need to be able to claim their freedom. To claim their freedom, they need to be able to testify in court that they have been brought into a free state. Some of them were forced to sign contracts, that said, if you come out and work for me in this free state, I will grant you your freedom in a certain number of months. For the free Blacks, they couldn’t prove that they were free unless they could testify in court. Unless you can go into court with your manumission paper, or your freedom paper, or your birth certificates to establish that you are a free person, a free Black person. If you’re not allowed to testify, you can be seized and taken back, or taken into slavery.

In California, the right to testify was the ticket to freedom. That’s what the Colored Conventions were about. There were four Colored Conventions in California, hundreds of African Americans, in California’s case, they were all men, gather. The first meetings are at the AME, the Methodist Episcopal churches in Sacramentovery deliberately down the street from the Statehouse where these laws were being enacted.

They’re demanding the right to testify. And they produce over eight thousand petitions. The California Legislature copies the U.S. House of Representatives, which had a gag order about talking about slavery, and it throws the petitions out. It literally refuses to receive them. . . .That’s the organization that gave birth to the civil rights movement. It also gave birth to what happened in the later civil rights movements born in the 1950s, 60s, 70sfree Blacks are raising money for enslaved Blacks to have lawyers (to have white lawyers). They raise thousands upon thousands of dollars, so that enslaved Blacks can go to court and be represented and gain their freedom.

In the epilogue, you ask, “What constitutes amends?” You list a series of what reparations could entail, including vaccines, electricity, taking down harmful language and statues, land acknowledgments, money, the list goes on. There is an important July 1st deadline for the California Reparations Task Force dealing with these questions. Can you speak about your discussion of reparations, about the task force, and what role you hope that this history will have on the future of reparations in the state of California.

JP: I’m actually about to testify before the reparations commission for San Francisco, and we’ll be raising these issues. California is one of the few states that’s put a dollar figure on reparations. The first figure that was put forth a few weeks ago was $8 billion, which is almost equal to the budget of California. And so, we were all weighing what’s right.

I have concerns about the flood of apologies that are coming forth from state governments and cities, apologizing for all the various forms of oppression. Is it just checking the box? Okay, we’ve done that. We’ve apologized. Or is it deeper than that? Does it mean that the truth has been acknowledged, and can be used and built upon. We’ll all probably think differently about that.

Two weeks ago, I spoke in the city of Antioch, where there was an apology for the violence done to the Chinese people in the city of Antioch. Having published all my concerns about apologies, I watched the Chinese family turn that printed apology over to the historical society, so that it will always be known that it will never be forgotten. What happened to the Chinese and Antioch. I have to say that it changed me to see the power of acknowledgement, the power of truth telling beyond the check. And yet we all know that without money, that none of these systematic changes can happen.

There’s so much more within this really deep history that we haven’t talked about. Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on yet that you’d like to share about the book?

JP: I think what struck me was the currency of modern human and sex trafficking. I was stunned to discover that when Native American children were being sold in the Siskiyou mountains and in the Eel River Valley, around Sacramento, a farmer said there isn’t a household in Sacramento that doesn’t have an Indian slave in their household. How common it was for Native Americans to be sold, for African American and slave plantation workers to be transported out to California.

I think the takeaway for me is how common it was, how casual it was, how it worked through the law, but like slavery everywhere, it also works through violence. You need the twinned, hand in hand, of the legal system, and brutality, to keep a person enslaved. And so that was an important take away from me. Also, right now, to have the takeaway that modern human slavery is downstream, is the legacy of all of these other forms of slavery. There is slavery in the garment workers, in all of our cool sweatpants and sweatshirts, and t-shirts. The university labeled baseball caps and hoodies the kids wear, that we wear, that they are stitched together in sweatshops. That girls are standing at truck stops being trafficked. That children are being trafficked out of foster care, right now. That people become foster families, and then sell these children. That families and women and children are being trafficked out of the immigrant detention centers now. This is our legacy to deal with now, as well as to become informed about the history that you and I were never taught

Jean Pfaelzer is a public historian, commentator, and professor of American studies at the University of Delaware. Her books include Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese AmericansRebecca Harding Davis: Origins of Social Realism; and The Utopian Novel in America. She lives in Washington, DC.


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