Michael Harris of the California Black Agriculture Working Group previews “A Taste of Africa,” an event that will kick off Black History Month at the State Capitol on Friday, Feb. 1. The event will focus on the role that Black Californians played in the Gold Rush and the transition from Mexican to American rule.
On black history during the Gold Rush era
Here along the American River Parkway is probably the best example in the entire Gold Rush community, because we have the black chef at Sutter's Fort, the Cooper who makes the barrels, the financial capital behind Sutter is a black man who is the treasurer of San Francisco. So you have towns, Negro Bar, Negro Hill, up above Coloma you have Negro Bluff and these were gold mining towns that grew into what we call today — El Dorado Hills was Negro Hills. The city of Folsom was Negro Bar, so you had the early days, it was a very strong, free people of African descent establishing a foothold in Gold Rush California.
On controversy over continuing to use the name Negro Bar
Well I'm more on the side of education because I think if we all have the same information, we'll all come to the same conclusion. Because for 300 years this was Spain and then people of African descent were leading the charge. The general in the Mexican army was a man of African descent leading the independence. The last governor of California was man of African descent, Pio Pico.
So the idea that Negro means black in Spanish and that during this 325-year period of time black people were an integral part of the California experience. But when we get to 1849 and now we have changed from civil law to English common law, and now black people are not human beings anymore, we're three-fifths of a human being for somebody else's empowerment. And so we don't want to like transition and tell that story in an honest way. So we just don't talk about it and we want to remove the name Negro because we're just completely ignorant and it's not in our history books.
On unrecognized Black figures from the Gold Rush era
The idea that we had whole towns, I mean literally thousands of people of African ancestry in the Gold Rush era. And some were free and others were enslaved. And the documentation is there, so we're working with the State Library and with the state archivist, working with the Mormon community, genealogists, so we can identify who exactly these people are.
So some of the leading persons: William Alexander Leidesdorff, who is the African founding father of California who owned 35,000 acres, from Bradshaw Road to the county line. Daniel Blue, who in the basement of his house founded the first black church west of the Mississippi. Nancy Gooch, who ironically ended up owning 300 acres surrounding Coloma, the very site where gold was found in the mill trace of a lumber mill that John Sutter owns. She owned all of that land after the Gold Rush and became very wealthy as an agriculturalist so I mean there's a lot of stories that we're insisting now that go into the history books, and that's why we're in a state capital and engaging with the politicians.
The new state superintendent of public schools who is an African Latino man, who understands it from his own personal experience and his own personal journey why it's not taught in our schools today. Because it's a beautiful story, because we're all here, but everybody's not in the book that's taught at the schools. So we need to move away from this enslavement story, that black people all of a sudden just came on the planet as slaves and talk about the richness of our history. You know, deep into the past, currently today, and what people of African descent could contribute in the future, which means preparing in school and preparing to be meaningful contributors to the forward flow of humanity, which is what we want people to take away from it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.