By Antonio R. Harvey | Sacramento OBSERVER
Dr. Shirley Weber, California’s first Black secretary of state, made one of her first public appearances as secretary at the California Legislative Black Caucus’ (CLBC) “Juneteenth Black Family History Event” in Sacramento Tuesday.
Dr. Weber, whose parents were sharecroppers in Hope, Arkansas, spoke publicly about “another side of California” that should be told in full historical context. Slavery did in fact exist in the Golden State and Black miners’ names should not be forgotten, she said.
“We think of California as a free state, yet there are many examples that took place where people were brought to California as slaves and were made to stay in California as slaves,” Dr. Weber said. “And then, when there was an opportunity for them to stay in California, they wanted to remain. But the government and others decided that they would pass the Fugitive Slave Act. So, if you came here (as a former enslaved person) you were sent back … So, it becomes important when we talk about reparations that we have a full picture of California and what took place here.”
Held at the Secretary of State office’s Constitution Wall Courtyard, the outdoor affair was a commemoration focused on Black miners’ integral role during the 1850s California Gold Rush.
Much like the story of Juneteenth — which commemorates the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to free the enslaved — the California Black miners’ experience is largely excluded in texts and research. But keynote speaker Jonathan Burgess, of the California African American Gold Rush Historical Association, told one story of servitude.
He talked about how his Black family’s land was taken from them. He also said that the “true history” of California has not been fully explained and, to him, it is a “miscarriage of justice to teach our kids incorrect history.”
“My goal is to educate and enlighten those who are not informed and believed that slavery did not exist in California,” said Burgess last week as he celebrated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time in its 156-year history.
“I also want to share some of the tactics that were used to take land,” said Burgess, a local entrepreneur who co-owns Burgess Brothers BBQ and Burgers with his twin Matthew. “This has been occurring since individuals came to what supposedly was a free state but hasn’t been completely free.”
The Burgess brothers’ enslaved great-great grandfather, Rufus Burgess, was brought to California from Louisiana in 1850 to mine for gold. Rufus Burgess eventually was freed and settled down as a blacksmith in Coloma, 48 miles east of Sacramento.
The blacksmith later bought 88 acres in Coloma, Jonathan Burgess said. But somehow the state was able to take control of the property.
The twin brothers, both born and raised in Sacramento, learned how to retrace their family’s California history through documents, some provided by the California State Archives, which is administered by Dr. Weber’s office.
In addition to Dr. Weber sharing information about the state’s legacy of slavery and recent activities concerning reparations for Black Californians, Michael Willis of the the Sacramento African American Genealogicial Society provided remarks on how to start a Black family history search.
Family members of the miners, serving as historical experts, assisted CLBC members and research staff with information for the celebration.
The Black community has known for 156 years about Juneteenth. Now that widely unknown stories of California Black miners are coming to light, the issues surrounding their suppression are finally creating a larger discussion, lawmakers say.
“This is a timely and appropriate step in the right direction as conversations continue around slavery and reparations to descendants of these atrocities,” said Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), chair of the CLBC. “Today is an opportunity for fellowship, celebration, and recommitting ourselves to addressing the lasting impacts of slavery that continue to affect Black life’s conditions in America. If we fail to learn from this history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
State Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) added that Juneteenth was celebrated on the Senate floor as “Freedom Day” and that many lawmakers, as well as many Black people, were also unaware of it.
The Burgess family’s history also is hidden to many California residents, Sen. Kamlager said.
“It is a shame that we are not talking about this in our schools, (kindergarten) through 12th grade, secondary schools and beyond,” said Sen. Kamlager, vice chair of CLBC. “It is really important that we know our history and for us to know who we are.”