California’s history of anti-Blackness hides beneath its progressive reputation

A new history of the state traces early civil rights battles spearheaded by Black activists.


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both freed and enslaved Black people came to the American West from the South, searching for lives free of the violence and oppression imposed first by slavery, and later by Jim Crow. In California, however, Black people often found equally calculated forms of disenfranchisement and segregation. Yet the state’s reputation as progressive persists — despite regular incidents of racist state violence, from the police murder of Stephon Clark to involuntary sterilizations in women’s prisons, where Black and brown women are overrepresented.

Historian Lynn M. Hudson’s new book, West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California’s Color Line, traces the history of discrimination and state violence in California from the period leading up to statehood in 1850 through the post-emancipation Reconstruction era. Covering topics such as Ku Klux Klan assassinations, segregation at community pools and schools and the implementation of eugenics, the book catalogues the intellectual and activist history of Black resistance in California. The resulting portrait of anti-Blackness and Black resistance challenges widely held beliefs about the history and sources of progressivism in the West and points toward an activism based in mass movements and mutual aid, such as today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

High Country News recently spoke with Hudson about the connection between early Black activism in California and today’s Black-led movements, the different strategies activists used to counter racist pseudoscience and the stubborn persistence of California’s progressive mythology. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Your book offers a very sober look at Reconstruction as it relates to the American West, and specifically these dreams Black Americans had of a better future in the West. What drew you to start your research in Pasadena?   

Lynn M. Hudson: It’s a personal story, because I grew up there and was a child when Pasadena was being sued for not adhering to Brown v. Board of Education and (for) maintaining segregated schools. So, while I was too young to really understand the lawsuits, I was a product of the school integration that resulted. I was in the fourth grade and went from having a very white-only experience to learning about Black history and having Filipino friends and Mexican American friends.

At school, you learn about sit-ins in the South, you might learn about Chicago, but you don’t hear stories about Los Angeles or about the West.

I also learned about the way that segregation continued to operate — I heard from my teachers and my parents about how segregated the municipal pool was and that Black people couldn't swim there. I wasn't sure about the significance of that specific history until I went to the Library of Congress and found all this correspondence about integration between Pasadena NAACP leaders — mostly women — and Thurgood Marshall (the first African American Supreme Court Justice). That really blew my mind because, when you hear stories growing up, you’re not always sure about how they fit into the national context. At school, you learn about sit-ins in the South, you might learn about Chicago, but you don’t hear stories about Los Angeles or about the West.

HCN: One of the central focuses in West of Jim Crow is on the legal methods Black Americans, particularly women, used to challenged discriminatory practices such as segregation — and their awareness of the limits to that approach. Do you see any connection to present-day movements led by Black women in California, like Critical Resistance, Black Lives Matter and Moms 4 Housing?

LMH: Yes. Many people tend to think that the protest movements that we’re looking at today are a new thing, and that moms didn’t organize before. I try to show in my book that Black women were in the forefront of all of these organizations — of anti-lynching movements, of the anti-Klan movement.

Charlotta Bass (the first Black woman to be nominated for vice president) led the movement to get the Klan out of LA and out of California. Delilah Beasley (a historian and journalist) worked to stop lynching in the state. Those women were very different from each other: Bass was a socialist and communist, the editor and publisher of the California Eagle (a Black newspaper based in Los Angeles). Beasley was from the generation earlier; the politics of respectability would have weighed heavily on her. But both saw the limits of strictly legal strategies to end lynching or to get the Klan out of California.

I do see a lot of similarities in the work that African American women are doing today on the front lines, in the organizations you mentioned. And the women who started Black Lives Matter are very, very aware of class, as Bass was, and very aware of gender and discrimination around queer identity and trans identity. They take an intersectional approach. Now, that’s obviously not the language that Beasley or Bass, or even NAACP President Edna Griffin, would have used, but they were very aware that these kinds of restrictions were hitting African Americans and other communities of color in different ways. 

HCN: You write about different approaches taken by Black activists to fight issues like segregation and racist justifications for them. For instance, there was the question of how Black people should respond to the language of eugenics. How did these actions play out publicly among Black people?

LMH: African Americans were well aware of the scientific racism that was shaping their chances for citizenship in the 19th century. I was fascinated to find in the San Francisco Black press these references to scientific racism in the 1860s and records from Black conventions where attendees, mostly men, spoke out against it. The literature oftentimes focuses on the experiments being done on slaves or Black citizens, but in my book, I’m also trying to show that African Americans were pushing back against scientific racism and violence beginning in antebellum America.

When I got to (events) like the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, I found something very different. The ways that women fought back against that ideology that Black women were unfit to be mothers — and were intellectually, socially, and physically inferior — was to really take up space at that parade celebrating Black domesticity and Black womanhood, showing off their physical beauty and social respectability by adorning floats with flowers and putting school children on them with American flags. ... That was also a counter-discourse, but not in the way historians oftentimes expect.

“Today, there’s the same tension between seeing California as this progressive land of freedom and then the shortcomings around issues such as citizenship and segregation.”

HCN: Historically, there has been a persistent idea that California is progressive in comparison to the rest of the country, particularly the South, beginning from its creation as a “free” state, where slavery was illegal. But when you look a bit deeper, anti-Black oppression has been legal in California throughout its state history, along with other forms of racist oppression, such as anti-Indigeneity, that continue today. You write about this contradiction, and how free Black people who came to California in the 19th century pushed against this mythology. Where was it was coming from, this desire to make California not merely just comparatively better, but actually live up to its values? 

LMH: That’s an important theme in the book, about the expectations held by free Black people traveling to California as well as enslaved people like Biddy Mason (a midwife who successfully petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom after being relocated from Mississippi to California), and others. They brought to the state these hopes of freedom because it was a “free” state. For Black people during the Reconstruction Era, their idea of California as a democracy was actually of a working democracy where justice would thrive, as opposed to the places they came from.

I think there’s a tendency to read back this progressive mythology. But at the California Constitutional Convention (which coincided with the Fugitive Slave Law’s expansion West in 1850) Black men were saying, “This is worse here than being in a slave state.” Ruby McKnight Williams, when she’s interviewed about her fight against segregation in Pasadena while she was president of the NAACP, said that when she arrived in the ’30s, “I didn’t see any difference in Pasadena and Mississippi except they were spelled differently.” I think we have to take those words seriously.

Today, there’s the same tension between seeing California as this progressive land of freedom and then the shortcomings around issues such as citizenship and segregation. African Americans in California continue to push it to live up to their dreams.

Cassie da Costa is a staff writer for the Daily Beast and an editor for the London-based queer and feminist film journal Another Gaze. Follow her on Twitter @tooearnestEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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