The politics of studying slave reparations in California

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 5/21/2020, midnight

The peripatetic state legislator, Dr. Shirley Weber, has just scored another major milestone in California politics. The former full professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, San Diego, who used to regularly harangue both faculty colleagues and students around the issue of the need to take politics out of the ivory tower and back to the streets, authored AB3121, the bill to create a California Reparations Commission, that just received partial legislative approval a few days ago. The legislative piece still has a few miles to go before achieving its final form, but it has picked up enormous support from not only Dr. Weber’s Legislative Black Caucus membership, but also other Assembly Democrats. The Democrats are in the majority in the current state legislature, including the state Senate.

One of the most important aspects of the proposed legislation is that it does not come with a huge price tag. It is currently under discussion in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and the recommendation from that entity will be crucial the rest of the way. Because of the continuing impact of the COVID-19 virus on the state, what had been a laudable state budget surplus is now a substantial state deficit, so not many big ticket items, no matter how worthy, are going to see the light of day this legislative term.

AB3121 is loosely based on the current version of the federal legislation H.R. 40 bill still pending in Congress. That federal legislation and the state legislation both call for the creation of a Reparations Commission to make viable proposals for reparations solutions at each level of government. H.R. 40 currently requests a 13-person commission, and AB3121 calls for an eight-person reparations commission.

Interestingly, the state of current historical studies of slavery in California, once a very big endeavor in state politics and academic inquiry during the early 2000s, is notably not very full. Slave studies have included the multi-volume stories of Bridget “Biddy” Mason, Archy Lee, slaves in the gold rush days, Black frontiersmen, Blacks in Los Angeles and other municipal histories, and the stories of Black settlements in California.  

The fairly recent, and very well-regarded, exhibition of slavery and Black progress in California put on by the California African American Museum in Exposition Park is an example of the current depth of such research (“California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848-1863,” a project of the California African American Museum, designed by Tyree Boyd-Pates and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, 2019). There is also a great digital research archive put together by Joe and Shirley Moore at California State University, Sacramento (now a part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, based on the 1998 law), and an ACLU Northern California project, “Gold Chains: the Hidden History of Slavery in California (2019).

Much more clearly has to be done on the subject, so some members of a state Reparations Commission must necessarily be professional historians, particularly legal historians. Slavery was illegal in California based on the original 1850 state constitution, but existed anyway. That constitution had, and still has, the words, “Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.”

But in the state’s complicated history with slavery (both African American and Native American), state officials regularly sided with slaveholders, and the state did pass an 1852 California Fugitive Slave Act, modeled after the national 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed the incarceration of free Blacks and their forced return to the South

We congratulate Dr. Weber, and the state Legislative Black Caucus, for this innovative step forward. It is welcome political movement in the time of a national and state health crisis.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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