Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Blacks in Gold Rush California. By Rudolph M. Lapp. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977. (Yale Western Americana Series, 29). Bibliographical essay. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 321 pages. $15.00.
Reviewed by Gregg R. Hennessey, graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Politics of Water in San Diego, 1895-1897,” The Journal of San Diego History, (Summer, 1978).
This book adds information but not insights to our knowledge of blacks in California and the West. Mr. Lapp has done prodigious work in the primary sources. He spent nearly two decades searching out his material in the country’s most important western history archives, in essential newspapers, in government documents, and in numerous individual manuscripts. Despite his best efforts, however, the author is forced to relate many incomplete stories because so many diarists and newspaper reporters failed to complete their own observations. Mr. Lapp’s frustration with this is keenly felt. Yet, what emerges from this work is a rather detailed picture of black Americans in the California gold rush decade.
The book looks at Negro life during the 1850s in three broad areas. In the mines blacks worked as both free men and as slaves, and nearly always under the onus of prejudice. Blacks worked as cooks, porters, laundrymen, and laborers, while some became entrepreneurs of saloons, restaurants, and inns. Most blacks labored in the gold fields, however, and, like their white counterparts, few of them made the fortunes they sought. As the flow of gold leveled off and the rush of humanity slowed, black Californians began to establish a community life, particularly in the growing urban areas of San Francisco and Sacramento. Racism again hovered over their efforts to begin businesses, establish churches, and struggle for education. Discriminatory legislation and numerous fugitive slave incidents led to a sustained civil rights movement in the 1850s. Highlighted by three successive conventions, black efforts attempted to reverse the repressive statutes and to develop formal organizations to direct their own destinies.
The book is presented topically, which unfortunately creates an uneven and disjointed story. After blacks arrive in California and begin mining, the story shifts to the cities where we are given a detailed albeit unimaginative look at Negro urban life. A chapter on churches and schools, which might have benefited with integration into the urban chapter, is placed three chapters away. This same chapter also illogically separates the material on fugitive slaves and the black convention movement. More confusing are the two chapters on the convention movement. The first of these two sections presents the background of the movement. It then continues, however, and tells of the results of the three meetings as well as the work that was done between each convention. This organization truncates the narrative of the following chapter on the conventions and forces the reader to refer back to the preceding chapter for a clear picture of the events. A chronological approach for this book, while admittedly more difficult to execute, would have served the reader much better.
As Lapp correctly notes, the story of blacks in California has all of the elements of nineteenth century Afro-American history—discriminatory legislation, fugitive slaves, civil rights conventions, and emigration— wrapped in the excitement of the gold rush. While he has caught well the exhilaration of the era and the Negro’s part in it, he has not enjoyed the same success in relating his material to the larger corpus of black history. At times the work is marred by questionable interpretations of major themes in black history. At one point Lapp tells us that during the first convention in 1855 blacks were not persuaded to become more active in agricultural efforts because of “too many negative associations historically.” (p. 217) In the nineteenth century Negroes understood the value of land ownership and made every effort to acquire it both before and after the Civil War. In fact, Lapp himself tells us that in the 1857 convention blacks made a strong protest against the United States Land Office ruling that the Dred Scott decision denied them preemption privileges and their resolution spoke of barring them from gaining “respectability and independence as tillers of the soil.” (p. 233) In several places the assertion is made that those blacks who came west were exceptional and had more initiative, tenacity, and aggressiveness than those who stayed behind. This idea has been used to explain why some blacks escaped slavery and others did not and why some left the South after Reconstruction and again during the Great Migration, while others did not. It offers much too simplistic an answer and should be used with extreme care. Lapp makes repeated references to the good quality of Negro life and race relations in New England, most particularly New Bedford, Massachusetts. This is the same New Bedford that closed its Lyceum membership to blacks, denied Frederick Douglass skilled employment as a ship caulker for fear of a strike by white workers, and forced blacks to sit in segregated sections in the churches.
Although this work lacks analysis and offers few new insights about Afro-Americans in the West, it does, nevertheless, provide a wealth of information about the black presence in California. Mr. Lapp’s efforts suggest the important possibilities that await other scholars.