A History of Black Americans in California:
This report, an historical overview of the Afro-American experience in California, was drawn from both oral and documentary accounts to identify and interpret significant Afro-American cultural resources. The study broadly covers the period from the Spanish and Mexican era through World War II, with the years between 1850 and 1940 examined in greatest detail.
To date, little factual information has been collected concerning Black presence in the decades immediately following statehood. There are few references to the experience of Black people either in nineteenth century local histories or in later and more scholarly interpretive histories. It is only recently that rural, poor, and ethnic minorities have been given serious consideration by American historians. Yet, despite scholarly neglect, the experience of Black Californians has been recorded in the memories of living people. And it is from these memories both recollections and eyewitness accounts that much of the historical data compiled in this report has been obtained.
Lay persons and scholars alike seem to believe that before 1940 there were virtually no Black people in the state. Contrary to these notions, although Afro-American people were comparatively few in number before World War II, they were settled throughout the state and made significant contributions to its development and growth. Population centers during the nineteenth century were located in the state's northern region. More than 60 percent of the Black persons in California counted in the United States Census of 1850 lived in Mother Lode mining towns. Within the decade of the 1850s, the population doubled and shifted away from the mines, so a mere 30 percent of the 3,721 Black persons enumerated in the 1860 census lived in the Mother Lode.
By 1900, 7,858 Black people lived in California, widely distributed among both northern and southern counties. Numerically small until the late 1940s, the group maintained a steady growth rate, although it never exceeded one percent of the total population. However, once the population center shifted to Southern California in the two decades before World War II, the growth rate in Los Angeles County alone doubled the rate for the entire state.
In this study, Black life has been examined from several perspectives: work experience, social organization, political status, and economic development. But these processes, like the social and political constraints on them, have been given only cursory consideration. Enough, however, has been done to unequivocably demonstrate the breadth in time and geographical space of the Afro-American experience and the availability of both archival and oral history resources for further study. Further research should be done in a timely manner, since the most valuable resource for this type study, the living memories, are not timeless. Without the benefit of elderly Blacks' recollections and eyewitness accounts, many dimensions of the Afro-American contribution to California will never be known.
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