Many people may believe that California’s admission to the union as a free state in 1850 meant slavery did not exist, or that California was a safe haven for African Americans and other people of color. However, pro-slavery attitudes — and even slavery itself — remained rampant well after 1850. Here is the story of California’s last known slave case, the state’s first Black church and how they converge with the unknown history of a free laundryman named Daniel Blue.
Celebrating California’s First Black Church
“Good morning, St. Andrews,” called out Rev. Philip R. Cousin Jr.
On a Sunday morning in late January, the church pews at St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church were filled with worshipers. Many have been attending St. Andrews — the first African American church on the west coast — for generations.
“St. Andrew’s is the best kept secret in the entire city of Sacramento,” said Cousin. “We were organized prior to statehood, so that gives us a bit of a foothold here.”
The church was established in 1850 by free men and former slaves who had recently arrived in California.
“The first thing that was done was to establish a community,” said Cousin. “And at the center of that community is always a church.”
St. Andrews was founded by Daniel Blue, a former slave from Kentucky who settled in California, made a fortune mining on the Sacramento River, and subsequently opened a laundry. With this wealth, he bought a house next door to California’s pro-slavery governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett. Blue held St. Andrews’ first service in his own basement.
Blue catapulted the church into ground zero for anti-slavery and social justice activism. Out of St. Andrews, Blue and his wife, Lucinda, opened a school for Black, Native American and Asian American children, even soliciting donations from the public when the state refused to fund it. In November 1855, St. Andrews hosted the first statewide convention of the California Colored Citizens to develop strategies for legislation to advance the rights of people of color.
“In Sacramento, St. Andrews was able to pull together a coalition of people of color and say, ‘Look, we can go to the court and demand these rights,’” said Cousin. “‘We can go to the state and demand to be counted as citizens.’”
As the first Black church in California, St. Andrews imbued its anti-slavery values to other African Methodist Episcopal churches around the state. It all started with Daniel Blue, whose influence on California state history was revolutionary.
But Blue left another indelible, albeit lesser known mark on state history: He freed California’s last known slave.
Discovering California’s Last Known Slave Case
Edith was a 12-year-old enslaved girl brought to rural Sacramento from Missouri in 1863. Shortly after, Edith was illegally purchased by Walter Gammon, a local farmer from Tennessee. According to court testimonies, witnesses said Gammon beat the young girl and left her without care or necessary clothing.
Word of Edith’s plight got back to Blue, who was a leader in Sacramento’s African American community. On Feb. 29, 1864 he filed a writ of habeas corpus in the county court, forcing Gammon to bring Edith to the judge.
Gammon responded that Edith stayed with him “of her own free will and choice.”
In response to Gammon, Blue requested that the judge grant him legal guardianship of Edith. The judge ruled in Blue’s favor, citing the slaveholder had “unlawfully and illegally detained and restrained” Edith.
It was the last known slave case in California’s history, 15 years after California entered the union as a free state.
The Persistence of Slavery in California
“[This story] shows us the persistence of enslavement in California,” said Stacey Smith, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, who has written extensively on this case.
According to Smith, there is no evidence of how Blue discovered Edith, who was isolated in the rural outskirts of Sacramento. Smith attributes Edith’s freedom to the grapevine networks among local African Americans — like those who attended St. Andrews, which had become the focal point of Black political life.
“It’s astounding that African Americans were able to infiltrate the household of Walter Gammon, figure out that Edith was there [as] a slave, figure out that she was being abused, and bring the case to the state courts to liberate her from enslavement,” said Smith.
Bringing Edith’s case to the courts wouldn’t have even been possible until 1863, because of a law prohibiting African American, Chinese, and Native American testimony in cases involving white defendants and plaintiffs.
Daniel Blue filed his probate case immediately after the law was lifted.
“It’s pretty clear there are Black witnesses who talk about the treatment of Edith under the care of Walter Gammon,” Smith continued. “They probably wouldn’t have been able to testify had that law still been on the books.”
According to Smith, laws like these were not uncommon as California’s pro-slavery legislators used their power to uphold pro-slavery attitudes.
“California did have a large pro-slavery population,” said Smith. “Pro-slavery southerners made up a surprising number of the immigrants that came overland to mine gold in the Gold Rush.”
Many of these Southerners brought their slaves to work in the mines. To protect the rights of slaveholders, California enacted its own version of the Fugitive Slave Act, which prohibited enslaved people from escaping their masters.
White Californians were perhaps uninterested in establishing slavery in California, according to Smith. Rather, they sought to maintain slaveholder rights while eliminating competition for economic advancement.
“The West really was meant to be a paradise for free white workers,” she said.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, white legislators enacted a series of laws to suppress the advancement of people of color. A vast majority of African Americans in California were manual laborers. Many of them drove carts, painted fences, or were domestic servants. Most were unable to buy land or ascend socially.
Daniel Blue, on the other hand, accomplished both. Known as “Uncle Daniel,” the former slave became a well-respected figure in the Sacramento community. Admired by people from all backgrounds, Blue used his unprecedented influence to champion not only other African Americans, but all people of color.
Daniel Blue’s Enduring Legacy
At the Center for Sacramento History, archivist Kim Hayden pulled out a leatherbound newspaper from the dusty archives. She was looking for Daniel Blue’s obituary, titled “An Old Man Gone.”
The obituary begins: “Daniel Blue, a colored citizen known to all the people of Sacramento and who died suddenly this week in the eighty ninth year of his age, was one of the most familiar figures on Sacramento streets for over a quarter of a century. He is to be buried tomorrow for Sacramento. And to have said he did not know Uncle Daniel Blue was to argue his ignorance of the city and its people.”
The obituary described Daniel Blue’s accomplishments, intellect, and how he was beloved by Black and white people alike — but there was no mention of Edith or Blue’s involvement in setting her free.
But according to Smith, there is evidence that Edith had a happy ending. The 1870 census listed a woman in Sacramento named Adda, Edith’s nickname. She was 19 years old, the same age Edith would have been. The census said she married an African American man, and they had a one-year-old son.
Edith or Blue’s living descendants weren’t reachable for this story, but it is apparent that Blue’s legacy lives on with St. Andrews and its community of worshippers — even during the coronavirus pandemic.
The church has been hosting virtual bible study and church services every week, after closing its doors due to California’s shelter-in-place order.
“We keep our founders’ heritage alive by keeping the flames burning of what impassioned them, because those values don’t wear out,” Cousin said.
Under Cousin’s leadership, the congregation is carrying out Blue’s vision of community, education and social action. Now, he says, the focus is on voting.
“Whatever we do out there is an expression of what we have learned and professed to believe in here,” said Cousin. “We encourage everyone to participate at every level in the life of the community. Certainly that means exercising their right to vote, particularly since that is not a right that has been ours for a very long time.”
Cousin says voting is the antithesis of standing around and waiting for something to happen. Voting is taking action — much like establishing the first Black church in California, or adopting a little girl out of slavery.
This story was reported as part of Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California. The project aims to lift up the voices of courageous African American and Native American individuals who challenged their brutal treatment and demanded their civil rights, inspiring us with their ingenuity, resilience, and tenacity. Gold Chains is a collaboration between KQED, the ACLU of Northern CA, the California Historical Society, Laura Atkins, and the Equal Justice Society.