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Colonel Allensworth
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



current topic A.M.E. Church
Noted Individuals

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A History of Black Americans in California:

The presence of Black people in California dates back to the Spanish colonial expansion. When the Spanish expeditions to the Pacific Coast were being organized, Africans, present in Mexico by the sixteenth century, were recruited. Serving in various capacities, free men of African ancestry helped establish California missions and pueblos. They constituted 25 percent of Juan Bautista de Anza's 1775 expedition to San Francisco, and more than 50 percent of the colony established at Los Angeles in 1781.

In fact, the first non-Indian buried in Monterey was a Black man. Entry number one in the first Book of Deaths at the Mission San Carlos Borromeo, the second mission established in California and the first in Northern California, was a Black man, Alex Nino.

Under Mexican rule, some Black persons who were naturalized Mexican citizens attained eminence in California. At the beginning of the American period, Richard Freeman, an Afro-American born in the eastern United States, joined the small American colony at San Diego. On February 10, 1847, Freeman bought the Ponciano property, a lot and a four room, one-story adobe building. There, he resided with Allen Light, the colony's other Afro-American, until his death in 1851 . These men operated a profitable grog shop known as the San Diego House in the adobe during their four years' residence.

Not much is known about the association of these two men before the period of their San Diego residency, although there are a few records on Light's life. Light, a native of Philadelphia, was in New York by 1827, the year an affidavit was prepared certifying the 24-year-old man's free status. History records him as present in California sometime around 1835. Light deserted the ship Pilgrim that year to remain in the Mexican territory. Along the Pacific Coast, he quickly gained prominence as a sea otter hunter. Some of his activities have been recorded in Richard Henry Dana's book, Two Years Before the Mast. By 1839, Light was a Mexican citizen, commissioned by the Alcalde of Santa Barbara to enforce Mexican maritime law as it pertained to sea otter hunting. Light moved to Humboldt County sometime after Freeman's death and died there in 1881. Mary Light, whom he apparently married after leaving San Diego, died six years before her husband.

Black people also settled in the village of Yerba Buena on San Francisco Bay. William Alexander Leidesdorff, born in 1810 in the Virgin Islands to a Danish man and an African woman, was reputedly the wealthiest and certainly one of the village's most influential men. He achieved great prominence during his seven-year residence in San Francisco, through commercial and political endeavors. In addition to San Francisco properties, Leidesdorff received Rancho Rio de los Americanos (later known as Folsom) in eastern Sacramento County as a Mexican land grant.

Following Leidesdorff's untimely death, the city fathers, as a tribute to their distinguished early citizen, staged an impressive funeral. However, a memorial befitting this famous pioneer was never erected in the city to which he made such a profound contribution.

Delegates to California's 1849 constitutional convention drafted a charter that created a non-slave state, yet they severely proscribed the civil rights of free persons of color. After admission to the Union, the California Legislature, in its first sessions, enacted further proscriptions in order to disenfranchise Black citizens. Black people had no right to: 1) testify in court against a White person; [1] 2) receive a public education; [2] 3) homestead public lands; [3] or 4) vote. [4]

California's Black leadership held conventions in several northern counties during the nineteenth century to develop political strategies and social programs designed to bring about a new political order. Four State Conventions of the Colored Citizens of California were convened between 1855-1865 in order to secure full citizenship. Sacramento's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black church west of the Mississippi, hosted three of the four conventions. The fourth was held in San Francisco.

Born of political circumstances, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was the oldest Black church in the United States. In 1787, Richard Allen led the withdrawal of Black Methodists from the predominantly White Philadelphia congregation with whom the group had worshipped, and created a racially separate church. W.E.B. DuBois described that church as "the greatest Negro organization in the world," [5] an accolade earned through active involvement in secular affairs. Black theology, as the A.M.E. Church interpreted it, was inseparable from practical matters of liberation. Committed to combatting institutionalized prejudice and bringing about a new political order, the church made available financial support, meeting rooms, and an educated leadership wherever it emerged.

Whenever possible, new branches of African Methodism were organized. Thus, the church seized on the opportunity to establish African Methodism in California immediately following statehood.

Sacramento's A.M.E. Church formally established the A.M.E. Church of California, and for more than three decades it was the principal Black denomination in the state. A.M.E. churches emerged in various towns, built on the efforts of the church's educated leadership and the strength of its political program. By the time the Third Annual Convention of Ministers and lay delegates to the California Conference met in September 1863, substantial and comfortable houses of worship stood in CoIoma, Marysville, Sacramento, Stockton, San Francisco, Grass Valley, and Nevada City. All that remains in most gold mining towns to designate the first sites of Black political activity are the words, "African Church," written across lots on nineteenth-century property maps.

The decision was made in 1854 for the first State Convention "to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the Legislature of California for a change in the law relating to the testimony of colored people in the Courts of Justice of this State." [1] Forty-nine delegates from 10 counties were present at the First Colored Convention of California, held in Sacramento's Bethel African Methodist Church November 20-22, 1855. The general assembly created an association with county auxiliaries and a $10,000 discretionary fund to wage a formal statewide campaign against statutory disenfranchisement.

The right to testimony was virtually tantamount to free status. Without it, individuals could not protect personal status or property from either the allegations or assault of others. The Civil Practice Act, Section 394, which passed into law in 1852, made the testimony of a Black person in admissable in the courts when offered in cases involving a White person.

Allen Chapel A.M.E.
Allen Chapel A.M.E., Riverside County

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