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Fall 2004 l Capital University Journal
Slaves in a Free State
Online archive shines light on uncomfortable facts
By Tim Wright

Drawing of a slaveIN AN EFFORT attracting national attention, Sac State researchers are helping rewrite the history of African Americans in California.

Using the World Wide Web, researchers with the California Underground Railroad Digital Archive are unearthing facts about black slaves and freemen in the Golden State prior to the Civil War. Their work, published online on the Sac State Library website, provides insight into a relatively unknown chapter in the state’s past.

Launched in February, the archive immediately attracted national attention. Articles appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country and project director Joe Moore was interviewed by radio and television stations from California to Florida as well as CNN. Larger numbers of people began clicking through the collection.

…many people don’t know that African Americans, both slave and free, were an integral part of the state’s society and economy.

“We certainly thought we’d get a lot of interest from scholars, but we had no idea the kind of interest we would get from all over,” Moore says.

Part of the interest stems from what seems to be the incongruity of African American slavery in California. California was admitted as a free state in 1850 and it is generally assumed that no African Americans were held as slaves in the state. So the idea of the Underground Railroad—a network of people who helped slaves escape—operating in the state is hard to grasp. But historians believe there were 200 to 300 blacks and countless California Indians held as property in the state’s early years.

“There were still a lot of slave issues in California—like bringing slaves into the state and how they were to be treated,” Moore says. “There were ads in the Sacramento newspapers offering blacks for sale.”

The archive uses high-quality digital images of letters, journals, photographs, documents, newspapers and more to tell the experiences of African American slaves in California. The collection brings together materials from around the state and includes a bibliography of more than 1,000 documents. It’s part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, which looks at how blacks and some whites worked together to help Southern slaves escape.

Moore says many people don’t know that African Americans, both slave and free, were an integral part of the state’s society and economy.

“Most people just assume that black people came to California in the 1940s to work in the war industries. To think of blacks in the early West just surprises people,” he says. “But, when you look at it, you find that it really wasn’t that uncommon.”

“This is a really promising project,” says historian Kevin Starr, the author of numerous books on California history, California’s State Librarian emeritus and a staunch advocate for the archive. He says the digital archive will place the black experience in California in its proper perspective and promote a deeper understanding of black contributions.

“We can tell you about the famous people,” Starr says, “but once you get beyond those 10 names or so we just don’t know much about the ordinary people–and their stories are very important.” Those stories, he says, are out there in the attics of black families who have been Californians for five or six generations.

The digital archive, he says, will stimulate the study of African American experiences in both California and the West, and make Sac State a nationally known destination for scholars and researchers–one they can reach without leaving their offices.

From all signs, the public is enthusiastic about the project. That popularity may, in turn, provide the archive with an abundance of historical riches: People from around the state have begun to dig into their family histories and offer collections of correspondence, diaries and photographs.

“Joe suspected that there was a lot of other historical material out there,” says Terry Webb, director of the Sac State Library. “But I don’t think anyone had any idea of the volume
of the response the archive would get.”

He says it’s been a groundbreaking project for the University and one that has a long future ahead of it.“

We intend for it to be a permanent collection in the library, continuously under development,” he says.

Funding, however, is an obstacle. Initial funding for the project–$195,000–came through two grants from the federal Library Services and Technology Act and was administered by the California State Library. Once that funding is exhausted, the University will have to look elsewhere.

“If we don’t find funding in the near future, we’ll continue to move forward but it will be at a snail’s pace,” Webb says. But he, Moore and Starr are optimistic. Success, they say, will breed more success.

More: or (916) 278-7302.


  • Handle documents and photographs with clean hands and store them away from light. Make a copy for display and store the original.
  • Don’t mix newspaper clippings, which are high in acid, with other documents.
  • Use “archival-quality” containers, which are free of chemicals that destroy paper and photographs.? Store documents flat.
  • Store items in relatively constant temperature (60 and 75 degrees), low humidity (40 to 50 percent) and away from pests like bugs and mice.
  • Avoid using glue, rubber bands, metal paperclips, staples or tape.
  • Avoid “repairing” damaged items.
  • Never touch the image or emulsion side of a picture, slide or negative, and don’t store pictures in “magnetic” albums. Never write in ink on the back of a photo. Use a soft pencil or label the photo mount.

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