The California Reparations Commission Fails State History

Its report erases the agency and success of black Californians and ignores how others worked with them to secure basic rights for all.

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California’s reparations commission has determined that slavery, as opposed to disastrous policies advanced by the political establishment for decades, is the real reason for present-day black poverty in the state. In just a few weeks, the legislature that created the task force will take up the commission’s proposal, which calls for payments to black residents of upwards of $1.2 million.

As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December, reading the 500 pages from the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans is like listening to Béla Bartók’s bloody Bluebeard’s Castle played on 100 kazoos.

Still, all anyone wants to talk about is the money, and for good reason — the commission proposes to create a nearly trillion-dollar fund from which qualifying African Americans may hope to receive million-dollar payments. The total cost is conservatively estimated at three times California’s annual budget.

Those sorts of eye-catching numbers have task-force supporters increasingly worried — perhaps especially Governor Gavin Newsom, whose signature created the commission that could imperil his White House ambitions. Now they’re trying to downplay the monetary awards, even acting a bit peeved that anyone would focus on something so mundane — so filthy — as mere money.

“Dealing with that legacy is about much more than cash payments,” Newsom said in a statement to Fox News. “The Reparations Task Force’s independent findings and recommendations are a milestone in our bipartisan effort to advance justice and promote healing. This has been an important process, and we should continue to work as a nation to reconcile our original sin of slavery and understand how that history has shaped our country.”

Task-force members are equally coy.

“We want to make sure that this is presented out in a way that does not reinforce the preoccupation with a dollar figure, which is the least important piece of this,” said Cheryl Grills, a task-force member and clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “It’s really unfortunate. I’m actually sad to see that our news media is not able to nuance better. It’s almost like, ‘What’s going to be sensational’ as opposed to what’s important.”

What’s important, Grills and others say, is providing the public with an accurate record of slavery in California — slavery and its innumerable effects — and then getting California to issue a formal apology for what the task force calls the state’s “perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”

“Our history has been so buried, so erased, so denied. I think that is an essential element of our mission,” said Donald Tamaki, a task-force member and lawyer from San Francisco.

On that matter, says task-force member and state assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the commission’s mission has been accomplished. His evidence: He said he has met “a few who have read the report, and it was eye-opening for them. For people who read the interim report, to hear them say ‘I didn’t know’ was probably the most gratifying thing I could hear.”

*   *   *

But on the more modest goal of documenting the history of black Californians, the commission has utterly failed. It actually erases the agency — the success — of black Californians throughout statehood. And the report ignores the ways in which Californians of all races and ethnicities have more often worked together to secure for all Californians unalienable human rights, among these the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As I wrote in the Journal:

Begin with this: Slavery in what’s now California was banned under Mexican authority in 1837. California joined the union in 1850 as a free state. The panel briefly acknowledges this only to dismiss it, lingering instead on the 1852 passage of the California Fugitive Slave Act, under which 13 people were deported from the state. The commission briefly mentions that the reviled law lapsed three years after being passed but doesn’t mention the numerous cases of white California officials—sheriffs, judges, attorneys and others—who discovered and liberated enslaved people.

The best known of these may be the story of Biddy Mason, an account I described in that piece.

Mason was one of several slaves brought to California by a Texas farmer in 1851. When Los Angeles County Sheriff David W. Alexander learned of their presence in San Bernardino, he gathered a mixed-race posse and rode 60 miles — up and over the windswept, nearly 4,000-foot Cajon Pass — to free Mason and the others. He brought them to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom where Judge Benjamin Hayes formally emancipated them. Remarkably, Mason went on to become one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest landowners, a merchant, midwife, and philanthropist.

Similarly, the commission touches on the case of Archy Lee, a 19-year-old black man brought to Sacramento in 1857 by his Mississippi master. Here’s how the commission reports Lee’s dramatic release from bondage:

But in one example, the case of Archy Lee from 1857 to 1858, the proslavery California Supreme Court made every effort to return him to enslavement. Lee’s enslaver, Charles Stovall, forced him to go with him to California years after the state fugitive slave law had expired. But California’s supreme court justices decided that since Stovall was a young man who suffered from constant illness, and he did not know about California’s laws, he should not be punished by losing his right to own Archy Lee. It took several more lawsuits by free Black Californians, and a new decision from a federal legal official, before Lee finally won permanent freedom. . . . After free Black activists successfully rescued Archy Lee from enslavement in 1858, angry proslavery legislators tried to make these anti-Black laws even worse.

Black Californians were indeed critical to Lee’s ultimate liberation. But much — in fact, almost everything — is missing from the commission’s version of events.

The curious might start with these questions: If California’s political establishment was so hostile to black Californians, how did “Black activists” manage the trick of “several more lawsuits” and the persuasion of “a federal legal official” to liberate Lee?

The answer: They did not act alone or without resources. One of those “Black activists” was Mary Ellen Pleasant, a millionaire, high-profile philanthropist, and abolitionist. When Lee escaped from Stovall, Pleasant gave him shelter and then helped finance two state cases that came before the state supreme court’s execrable decision to remand Lee to Stovall’s custody. Lee’s attorney throughout the ordeal was Edwin Crocker, a white man, and the chairman of California’s first Republican Party gathering, in 1856.

It was arguably the partnership of Crocker and Pleasant that kept Lee free and in California through the first state-court case and subsequent appeal. When the state supreme court asserted that Lee must be returned to Stovall, it was Crocker who persuaded T. W. Freelon, a (white) federal judge in San Francisco, to overturn the state high court’s stupid ruling. And when Stovall nevertheless attempted to kidnap Lee aboard the Orizaba, a ship anchored in San Francisco harbor, white policemen carried out a search to rescue Lee. They found and freed him. Stovall returned to Mississippi sans Lee. Perhaps shaken by his near miss or lured by gold fever, or both, Lee left California for British Columbia that same year.

But to acknowledge all of this would mean trouble for a government task force determined to find evidence of systemic violence against black Californians. Despite the commission’s bias, there were such Californians as Biddy Mason and Mary Ellen Pleasant — black, independent, and financially successful women. There were also white attorneys willing to fight for black freedom in a decade of national chaos in which the rights of black Americans were in flux. More important, there were white California officials — judges, police, and others — willing to enforce laws defending black Californians. Systematically ignoring this evidence is Orwellian, an official government endeavor designed to obscure history for momentary political gain. If successful, it will rob all Californians, including black Californians, of aspirational models of the hard work of freedom — and of hard work generally.

*   *   *

The commission’s childish and dangerous account of the case of Archy Lee is a masterpiece of academic rigor compared with its complete silence on the outsized role played by Californians in the Civil War itself.

Though California entered the Union a free state, Southern apologists never surrendered their hope of one day capturing the Golden State. These fantasists foresaw the creation of a vast slave empire, fueled by California gold and run through Pacific Ocean ports, stretching not just coast to coast but globally, too — south through Mexico, Central and South America, all the way to frigid Tierra del Fuego, and westward across the Pacific Ocean to grasp all of Asia.

When the Union blocked Southern ports in the summer of 1861, Richmond’s malignant California dream became an urgent military necessity. Confederate troops massing ominously in West Texas suddenly crossed that border, invading the New Mexico Territory and establishing a regional capital in Mesilla with an outpost farther west in Tucson. From that fortress town, the rebels began probing the desert path to California.

Set against Southern ambition, some 2,000 Californians volunteered for training at Camp Downey, in what’s now Oakland. This newly minted First California Volunteer Infantry, along with regular Army units, was shipped to Los Angeles and from there stepped off on a 900-mile march across Southern California’s hellish eastern deserts toward the Confederate Army. Water and food were scarce along the route. Just as formidable were the Apache Indians; fierce defenders of their historic lands, they were a constant threat to the Californians.

Still, they marched. On April 15, 1862, at Picacho Pass, 50 miles northwest of Tucson, twelve California scouts ran into ten rebel “pickets” — guards at the westernmost tip of the advancing Confederate Army. Their engagement was brief and deadly. Irish-born Californian lieutenant James Barrett led the attack, quickly capturing three Confederates and killing another. But when he had secured one of the prisoners and swung back onto his mount, Barrett was briefly in the range of a sharp-eyed rebel sniper. Shot through the neck, Barrett bled out on the spot. Two other Californians, Privates George Johnson and William Leonard, were shot and died nearby.

The retreating Confederate pickets carried news of the advancing California Column back to their outpost in Tucson; from there, the Confederates packed up and fled back to Texas.

The Battle of Picacho Pass ended the western advance of the most malignant force in the first American century. It ended the slaveholders’ dream of global empire. But that achievement left behind the dreams of three young Californians. Johnson was just 21, Leonard perhaps 26; their bodies were returned to California and buried at the San Francisco Presidio. Barrett’s body, reportedly buried in a shallow grave, was never found. In 1928, the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society and the Southern Pacific Railroad erected a monument, near U.S. 10, to recall their sacrifice in the “only battle of the Civil War fought in Arizona Territory.”

The California Column wasn’t unique. From a state population of just 380,000, more than 17,000 Californians joined the Union ranks — “the highest per-capita total for any state in the Union,” notes the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Fewer than 300 Californians left to join the Confederacy.

Few Americans today recall the Californians’ commitment. There is no mention of it in the state’s reparations report. Here as elsewhere, the commission’s report often speaks loudest in its silences.

*   *   *

One of those silences is the commission’s refusal to explain the voluntary, post–Civil War migration of millions of black Americans to California, including to Weed, a flourishing lumber town.

But Weed was eventually destroyed, and with it the prosperous black and other migrant families that built the town. It was destroyed not by slavers or white racists or “systemic racism.” It was destroyed by well-meaning but shortsighted liberal politicians — state and federal officials who linked arms with environmental activists and began squeezing the life out of the Northwest timber industry, including Weed. Blindly privileging such remarkable species as the spotted owl over the more common human person, California state and federal regulators locked down the forests.

This overregulation of California’s lumber industry was supposed to save the planet. Instead, it has done the opposite. It began with the gradual, ceaseless piling up of federal, state, and local regulations. The pile is now so large it is a kind of monument to human arrogance, a record of the government’s doomed effort to cover every eventuality, from “forest health, wildlife habitat, water and air quality, archeological sites, [and] land use patterns” to “respect for community sentiments,” as researchers put it in a 2005 study of the decline and fall of the California timber industry. Those “growing regulations have only created costlier sales, not ‘cleaner’ ones,” the researchers concluded. In the process, these programs undermined the wealth and opportunities of working Californians, including the black Californians about whom the commission says it is most concerned.

*   *   *

The reparations task force concluded that “American government at all levels, including in California, has historically criminalized African Americans for the purposes of social control and to maintain an economy based on exploited Black labor.” Yet progressive government itself is the enemy of disadvantaged Californians. Confronting these massive failures would bring the state task force face-to-face with its own fellow ideologues: government unions, environmental-justice warriors, and progressive government officials. I’ll call back one last time to my prior piece:

Take the state’s execrable public education system. California ranks dead last in the nation in literacy. Black children are the most brutalized [by] these failures: Only 10% meet math standards and about 30% achieve English competency. Yet as test scores fall, high school graduations rise. Denied a real education, many of these children will qualify only for low-level jobs and government assistance.

The commission calls this a “school-to-prison pipeline” and blames slavery.

But the problems clearly start in the schools. In the classroom, collective bargaining gives union leaders authority over teacher hiring and firing; they use this authority to reward loyalists, punish reformers, and move failing teachers into broken schools where overwhelmed poor parents are unlikely to notice.

Click here to read the full article at National Review


  1. Really??? says

    Facts who cares about facts?

    Look at the LBJ project that spent $Billions mainly on the black community. The out come was no statistical difference in poverty or jobs.

    Sure let’s throw more taxpayer dollars…..after all it just to White Cracker folks.


  3. Dr. Trent Saxton says

    Should black Americans pay white Americans for the death of white soldiers in the Civil War to free them as slaves? And yes, they should. See how this works?

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