October 28, 2003
California slavery archive takes digital format
State University, Sacramento is building a new one-of-a-kind archive that will
draw visitors from around the world.
But those visitors will never step foot on campus. Instead they’ll click their way through digital holdings—letters, journals, photographs, documents, newspapers, ephemera and more—that tell the story of African American slave experiences in California and the state’s little-known involvement in the Underground Railroad. The digital archive will hold high-quality images of original source material carefully cataloged for use by scholars and the curious public.
“The library hasn’t jumped into a major digital collection like this before,” said Terry Webb, library director and dean, adding that it’s an exciting prospect. “We need to become a more active player in the field of information technology.”
The CSUS Underground Railroad Project is under the guidance Joe Moore. Moore, along with his wife, CSUS history professor Shirley Moore, are experts in African American experiences in Gold Rush-era California and founded the annual Juneteenth Celebration in Folsom that commemorates the black experiences in the gold fields. The two are working with graduate students and library specialists on the project.
Funding for the CSUS Underground Railroad Digital Archive project—$132,435—is through a grant from the federal Library Services and Technology Act administered by the California State Library.
It’s one part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, a National Park Service effort to commemorate and interpret the Underground Railroad across the nation. The Underground Railroad was the name given to the loosely organized network of people—most of them free blacks—who helped escaped slaves flee slavery in the South and seek new lives in the North, the West, Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Caribbean.
“Most people don’t think of the Underground Railroad as operating in California,” Joe Moore said. “But there were still a lot of slave issues in California—like bringing slaves into the state and how they were to be treated.”
California was admitted to the Union as a free state largely because white gold miners feared competition from slave labor in the gold fields. Yet, at the same time, Southern slave holders continued to bring slaves into the state and there were an estimated 200 to 300 blacks—as well as countless California Indians—held as property in the state’s early years.
“There were ads in the Sacramento newspapers offering blacks for sale,” Moore said, adding that the local slave auctions were held on J Street. And, where there were slaves, there were runaways and people who helped them.
“The National Park Service feels it is important to tell the story of the Underground Railroad in the West,” Moore said. As a result, once the CSUS archive is online, it will be linked into a national network of websites devoted to blacks’ quest for freedom.
Telling that story in California is not easy: Most of the people who worked to help blacks escape did so in secret, often using assumed names and leaving few records. Moore’s first task was to find out how many of those records still existed and then to bring as many as possible together under one digital roof.
Moore and five graduate students from the history and public history programs visited 80 different sites around the state and in British Columbia (Vancouver became a prime destination for blacks from California) and put together a list of material that fills a three-inch binder.
“It was amazing the amount of material we came up with,” Moore said. It includes newspaper articles, personal letters, diaries, early audio recordings, and—Moore’s favorite—photographs.
“That was the best part for me, just seeing their faces,” he said.
Moore and others on the project will now work with the owners of the material to convert it into high-quality digital images and place them on the Internet.
The library’s Webb said the project was unique in that the library will be providing access to materials it does not have physical possession of—acting more as a gateway to the resources than their physical curator. But he said the project could make CSUS a logical place for people to donate historical material about the African American experience in California.
Moore said they are now working to gathering the material and post it on the web. Although Moore expects the first material to go online in the spring, it will be an incremental process with new materials posted as they are digitized.
For more information, contact Joe Moore at (916) 278-7302. Media assistance is available from CSUS public affairs at (916) 278-6156.
California State University, Sacramento Public Affairs
6000 J Street Sacramento, CA 95819-6026 (916) 278-6156 firstname.lastname@example.org