30 African Americans Who Made History in California

From the 1800s to the present century, here are some of the men and women who took big strides toward racial equality.

PUBLISHED FEB 13, 2023 1:09 A.M.
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Clockwise from upper right: Architect Paul R. Williams, Assemblyman Frederick Madison Roberts, abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (with President Gerald Ford).

Clockwise from upper right: Architect Paul R. Williams, Assemblyman Frederick Madison Roberts, abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (with President Gerald Ford).   Public domain

As with the rest of America, California’s history has been greatly shaped by the contributions of African Americans in all walks of life, from artists to activists and attorneys to politicians. California would not have become one of the leading states on progressive values without the impetus of African American and other social justice activists advocating for their rights.

These contributions are not always included in the public record, however, but there are many nonprofits and other organizations trying to ensure that the struggles, victories and cultural contributions of California’s Black residents are remembered. Visit California takes a look at the many African American firsts in the state while the ACLU Northern California takes a deeper look at the troubled history of how slavery helped shape the state with its series Gold Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California

Even school districts are pushing back on the growing national firestorm on critical race theory, such as the San Francisco Unified School District adopting a resolution to include Black studies as part of its K-12 curriculum in an effort to introduce students to the concept of race, systemic racism and the contributions Black people have made to the country and the state. The move in one of America’s most liberal cities will surely be emulated by other school districts across the nation that want to push back on efforts to erase civil rights history from school curricula.

For Black History Month, California Local salutes the many African American trailblazers who pushed boundaries and broke barriers across multiple fields and helped shape our state. These are only a handful of the many leaders who have made significant contributions. Who would you add to the list? To tell us, click on the “Keep It Fresh” box in the righthand column of this page.

1. Mary Ellen Pleasant (c. 1814-1904)

Our list begins with a woman who has been described as the first African American millionaire, and California Local readers can also find her on a list of Golden State groundbreakers compiled to salute Women’s History Month. Pleasant also demands inclusion on this list for her reputation as an ardent abolitionist. According to a biography posted by the National Park Service, she sheltered Archy Lee (see below) and other enslaved people, “essentially establishing California’s Underground Railroad.” She reportedly helped support abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, and her tombstone describes her as “a friend of John Brown.” 

2. Biddy Mason (1818-1891)

Born into slavery, Biddy Mason won her freedom from a California court in 1856. A real estate entrepreneur, she was one of the founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She gained knowledge of medicine and child care during her enslavement, and during her time in Los Angeles was instrumental in founding a traveler's aid center, and a school and day care center for Black children. She is also included on California Local’s list of Golden State groundbreakers.

3. Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood (1828-1867)

Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood was a 19th-century African American educator and activist in California, best known for being the first Black teacher in Sacramento. She moved to California in 1852 with her husband and young son during the Gold Rush and was soon widowed and forced to provide for her son solo while living in Sacramento. Her son was not allowed to enroll in school due to his race so Scott Flood opened her own school in 1854 out of her home and taught non-white children and some adults until the Sacramento school board took over administration of the school shortly afterward. She later attended the first California State Convention of Colored Citizens in Sacramento where she joined other activists in calling for better representation and civil rights. She soon met her second husband and settled outside of Oakland, where she opened another school for non-white children out of her home. The couple started the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the area and were soon able to acquire an old building that housed the school and church services. Scott Flood died unexpectedly in 1867 at age 39 before seeing the desegregation of school but one of her daughters was the first African American students to attend Oakland schools in 1872. By 1875, all African American schools in the area were closed, and in 1880, the law was changed in the state of California outlawing school segregation.

4. Edward Duplex (1830-1900)

    Edward Parker Duplex, the first Black mayor in California, was an entrepreneur, politician, and civil rights activist. He was elected mayor of Wheatland in Yuba County in 1888 and was a leader of the state’s Colored Conventions movement. Born in Connecticut, he migrated to California during the Gold Rush, and used his profits to start his own barbershop in Marysville, where he employed other Black barbers. He later moved to Wheatland, where his barbershop became one of the two longest running businesses in the town. He served as a delegate from Yuba County at the California Colored Citizens Convention in 1855, and used his activism to fight for allowing Black testimony in the court system, and equal educational opportunities for African Americans. He also supported the creation of the Mirror of the Times, California's first Black newspaper, in 1857.

    5. Archy Lee (1840-1873)

    Archy Lee was born into enslavement and later played a key role in a series of notable 19th-century court cases that defined civil rights in California. He was brought to California as a slave in 1857 and although California was a free state, he was still required to work as an enslaved man until he escaped. He was later arrested and prosecuted by his enslaver, but he was defended by a prominent civil rights attorney and won a ruling declaring that Lee was a free man because California was a free state and, though Mississippi was a slave state, his enslaver had become a permanent resident of California, and thus could not own slaves. The ruling was later overturned by the California Supreme Court and then that decision was overturned by the federal court in San Francisco in 1858, which declared Lee a free man.

    6. Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth (1842-1914)

    Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth was a noteworthy chaplain and teacher who became the first African American to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army as a member of the Buffalo Soldiers in the West. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he escaped during the American Civil War by joining the 44th Illinois Volunteers as a Union soldier. After being ordained as a Baptist minister, he worked as a teacher, led several churches, and was appointed as a chaplain in the United States Army. He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years, retiring in 1906, and then made his way to California, where he co-founded the town of Allensworth with Professor William Payne in 1908 as the first community established, financed, and governed entirely by African Americans. It continues to be restored and maintained as the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

    7. William T. Shorey (1859-1919)

    William T. Shorey was a late 19th-century American whaling ship captain known to his crew as the “Black Ahab,” a reference to the fanatical fictional captain of Moby Dick. Born in Barbados, Shorey spent much of his life at sea and was the only Black captain operating on the west coast of the United States in the late 1880s and 1890s, based out of San Francisco. He led several whaling ships—Emma F. Herriman, Alexander, Andrew Hicks, Gay Head II, and John and Winthropwith multiracial crews. John and Winthrop was the only whaling ship in the world to be manned entirely by an African-American crew. Shorey retired from whaling in 1908 and lived in Oakland, where he became a civic leader, until his death from the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919.

    8. Delilah Beasley (1867-1934)

    Delilah Leontium Beasley was a historian and the first African American woman to be published regularly in a major metropolitan newspaper when she worked as a columnist for the Oakland Tribune. Beasley was also known for documenting the struggles of California's Black pioneers in her book Slavery in California (1918) and her classic work, The Negro Trail-Blazers of California (1919). Beasley's Trail-Blazers book included diaries, biographical sketches, poetry, photographs, old papers, conversations with old pioneers, and a comprehensive history of early legislation and court cases involving noteworthy Black people in California. Her career in journalism spanned more than 50 years, during which time she detailed the many racial problems in California and the struggles for civil rights.

    9. Hettie B. Tilghman (1871-1933)

    Hettie Blonde Tilghman was a community leader and social activist in Oakland who advocated on behalf of Black women and youth in the Bay Area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Born into an influential African American family in San Francisco, Tilghman devoted her career to childhood development causes, creating and managing daycares and youth clubs. She co-founded the Phyllis Wheatley Club of the East Bay, served on the board of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, and led the Oakland branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among other leadership roles. She was also a strong advocate for women’s suffrage until her death in 1933.

    10. Charlotta Bass (1874-1969)

    Though she wasn’t born in California, Charlotta Bass moved here after college, turning her degrees from Ivy League schools Brown University and Columbia University into a career in journalism, joining the staff of the California Eagle in Los Angeles. She’s also on our Golden State groundbreakers list along with native-born Californiana Kamala Harris, with whom Bass shares an achievement: both were nominated to run for vice president by their respective parties—Bass was tapped by the Progressive Party in 1952.

    11. Frederick Madison Roberts (1879-1952)

    Frederick Madison Roberts, a great-grandson of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson, was the first Black man elected to the California State Assembly and an American newspaper owner and editor, educator and business owner. Roberts lived in Los Angeles and founded The New Age Dispatch newspaper (later called New Age), which he edited until 1948. He also joined his father’s mortuary, A.J. Roberts & Son, and eventually took it over. As a newspaper editor and business owner, Roberts became a prominent leader in the growing African American community of Los Angeles and was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. He was elected to the California State Assembly in 1918, where he served for 16 years and became known as "dean of the assembly." He twice ran for Congress unsuccessfully as well.

    12. Paul R. Williiams (1894-1980)

    Paul Revere Williams was an American architect based in Los Angeles who designed many public and private buildings as well as homes for celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Correll. Orphaned at a young age, Williams was eventually adopted by C.I. Clarkson and his wife and was the only African American student in his elementary school. He studied at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design and received a degree in architectural engineering at the University of Southern California. Williams won an architectural competition at age 25, and three years later opened his own office. Known as an outstanding draftsman, he perfected the skill of rendering drawings “upside down” in an effort to make his white clients more comfortable sitting across from him rather than next to him. In 1923, Williams became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. He also won the AIA Award of Merit for his design of the MCA Building in Beverly Hills in 1939.

    13. Augustus Hawkins (1907-2007)

    Augustus Freeman Hawkins was a longtime public servant who represented Los Angeles in the California State Assembly from 1935 to 1963 and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1991, becoming the first African American west of the Mississippi to join Congress. Over the course of his career, Hawkins authored more than 300 state and federal laws, the most famous of which are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. He was known as the "silent warrior" for his commitment to education, fair housing, and ending unemployment. An African American of mixed-race ancestry, Hawkins was very fair-skinned and reportedly resembled his English grandfather Throughout his life, he was often assumed to be of solely white ancestry, though he refused to pass as white.

    14. Elouise Westbrook (1915-2011)

    Elouise Westbrook was a housing rights and health activist in San Francisco and part of the Big Five of Bayview, an informal group of five Black women living in the impoverished Hunters Point area of the city who organized to advocate on behalf of their neighborhood. They won fame by marching in 1973 in Washington, D.C., for funds that had been promised to complete the housing to replace temporary housing in Hunters Point, not leaving until they had secured a $30 million grant. Streets and landmarks in the neighborhood have since been named in their honor. Westbrook worked as a supervisor at the city's Economic Opportunity Council prior to her political involvement and she went on to be a leading champion of affordable housing in the city and beyond. In 1973, she testified in front of the Subcommittee on Housing and Urban Affairs of the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Throughout the early 1970s, Westbrook lobbied the city of San Francisco to open a free medical clinic in Potrero Hill, which resulted in the 1976 opening of the Caleb G. Clark Potrero Hill Health Center.

    15. Wilson Riles (1917-1999)

    Wilson Camanza Riles was an educator who became the first African American to hold statewide office in California when he was elected in 1970 as the superintendent of public instruction. He went on to be reelected twice more to the position until he lost his bid for a fourth term to Louis "Bill" Honig in 1982. Riles was also the first African American in the nation to be elected state superintendent of schools. In 1973 he was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an African American. Wilson C. Riles Middle School in Roseville, is named for him.

    16. Tom Bradley (1918-1998)

    Thomas Bradley was a police officer who went on to become the first Black mayor of Los Angeles. His 20 years in office, from 1973 to 1993, mark the longest tenure by any mayor in the city's history and at his election in 1973 was only the second Black mayor of a major U.S. city, after Carl Stokes of Cleveland. Bradley retired in 1993 in the aftermath of the fallout from the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He also ran for governor of California in 1982 and 1986 but was defeated both times by Republican candidate George Deukmejian. Prior to serving as mayor, Bradley was the first African American elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963. In 1985, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP and the International terminal at LAX is named after him.

    17. Mervyn Dymally (1926-2012)

    Mervyn Malcolm Dymally was a longtime politician representing the Los Angeles region in the California State Assembly (1963–66) and the California State Senate (1967–75) as the 41st lieutenant governor of California (1975–79) and in the U.S. House of Representatives (1981–93). Dymally returned to politics a decade later to serve in the California State Assembly once again in 2003–08. Originally from Trinidad, Dymally was one of the first persons of Dougla (mixed African and Indian) origin to serve in the U.S. Congress. He was also the second African-American to hold statewide office in California, following Wilson Riles (see above), who served as California Superintendent of Public Instruction starting in 1971.

    18. Nick Gabaldón (1927–1951)

    Nicolás Rolando Gabaldón was an early surfer who is credited by experts with being California's first documented surfer of African American and Latino descent at a time when many beaches in Southern California were largely segregated. While he was only an amateur, Gabaldón is widely considered a role model for his part in the history of surfing and African American history in the areas of Santa Monica and California. He lived most of his life in Santa Monica and taught himself how to surf at a 200-foot roped off stretch of demarcated beach at Santa Monica State Beach that was informally known as a predominantly Black beach, the only place in Southern California that racial minorities were freely allowed to use without harassment or violence. Around 1949, Gabaldón began riding waves at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, where he was accepted by the majority of white surfers in the burgeoning sport. He tragically died in a surfing accident at the age of 24.

    19. Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

    Maya Angelou was a renowned poet, educator, and civil rights activist who moved to the Bay Area at the age of 14. Even before she became the famous author we know today, she was already making history: At just 16 years old, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. Angelou rose to fame in 1969 with her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and went on to write several acclaimed essays, poems, and autobiographical pieces. She also became the first African-American woman to present a poem at a presidential inauguration in 1993. Angelou obtained dozens of honorary degrees and doctorates and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—by President Barack Obama in 2010. In 2019, she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

    20. Rev. Cecil Williams (1929-)

    Albert Cecil Williams is the longtime pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco and a community activist who advanced acceptance of gays and other social causes from his influential pulpit. Williams became the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, California in 1963, and founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual the following year, which brought together religious leaders from many denominations with the common goal of administering to the gay community and combating homophobia. He welcomed everyone to participate in services, attracting major celebrities when they were in town and creating a high demand for his standing-room-only Sunday services that helped his congregation to grow to more than 10,000 members at the height of its popularity. He also hosted political rallies in which Angela Davis and the Black Panthers spoke and he attempted to negotiate for Patty Hearst’s release when she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. He also grew Glide into the largest provider of social services in the city, serving over 3,000 meals a day, providing AIDS/HIV screenings, offering adult education programs, and giving assistance to women dealing with homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Williams retired as pastor in 2000 at the age of 70 but remained involved with Glide as pastor emeritus.

    21. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (1932-)

    Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is a politician and lawyer who was the first African-American woman to represent the West Coast in Congress (1973-1979) and the first woman to give birth while in office, making her the first person to be granted maternity leave by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. While in Congress, Brathwaite Burke advocated on behalf of marginalized communities and pushed for better working conditions that allowed her to be a new mother while managing her time in Congress. Prior to her time in Congress, Brathwaite Burke served on the California State Assembly in 1966, representing Los Angeles’ 63rd District. After Congress, she represented the 2nd District on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from 1992–2008 and served as Chair of Los Angeles County four times and chair pro tem three times. She left politics in 2008 but remains involved in many activities, such as serving as a member of the board of directors of Amtrak, having been appointed to the position by President Barack Obama in 2012.

    22. Belva Davis (1932-)

    Belva Davis is a prominent television and radio journalist who was the first African American woman to become a television reporter on the West Coast. She has won eight Emmy Awards and been recognized by the American Women in Radio and Television and National Association of Black Journalists, among other honors. Davis got her start as a writer in her hometown of Oakland and soon became an on-air reporter at San Francisco’s CBS affiliate station, KPIX–TV, covering race, gender, and politics. She became an anchorwoman at the station in 1970 and eventually hosted her own talk show, This Week in Northern California, before retiring in 2012. She published a memoir, Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism, in 2010.

    23. Willie Brown (1934-)

    Willie Lewis Brown Jr. is the colorful former mayor of San Francisco and a longtime speaker of the California State Assembly. He was the first African-American to hold the office of mayor in San Francisco, serving in the position from 1996 to 2004, after which he was succeeded by protege Gavin Newsom. He started his career as an attorney and civil rights leader and was then elected to the California Assembly in 1964, during which he became known as one of the country's most powerful state legislators. He served as the Speaker of the California State Assembly from 1980 to 1995 and his long tenure and powerful position were used as a focal point of the California ballot proposition limiting the terms of state legislators that passed in 1990. During Brown’s tenure as mayor of San Francisco, the city’s budget was expanded in part thanks to the dotcom boom, and real estate development, public works, city beautification, and other city projects saw a significant increase. His administration included more Asian Americans, women, Latinos, gays and African-Americans than the administrations of his predecessors. He retired from politics after leaving the office in 2004 and published an autobiography, Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times, in 2008.

    24. Alice Walker (1944-)

    Alice Walker is a novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist who is best known for her seminal novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award. Though she wasn’t born in California, she has lived in the state since the late 1970s. In addition to her famous novel-turned-musical, Walker has written several other best-selling books, essays, short stories, children’s books, and poems. Walker is also an advocate for women’s rights, civil rights, environmental and animal rights, and many other movements aimed toward worldwide change and equality. Her 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction win for her novel The Color Purple made her the first African-American woman to win the award. The book became a bestseller and was subsequently adapted into a critically acclaimed 1985 movie directed by Steven Spielberg, featuring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as a 2005 Broadway musical totalling 910 performances. Over the span of her career, Walker has published 17 novels and short story collections, 12 non-fiction works, and collections of essays and poetry.

    25. Angela Davis (1944-)

    Though she didn’t come to California until she enrolled in graduate school at University of California, San Diego, Angela Davis has spent most of her career teaching in the Golden State. In 1969 she was hired to teach at UCLA, but was fired by the Board of Regents for being a member of the Communist Party. In 1970 she ended up on the FBI’s most wanted list when a gun belonging to her was used when a group of prisoners were involved in a shootout at the Marin County Courthouse. She was apprehended but ultimately acquitted—which didn’t deter then Governor Ronald Reagan from vowing she would never teach in California again. He didn’t get his wish. Davis subsequently taught at San Francisco State University for a dozen years before running on the Communist Party ticket as vice president in 1980 and 1984. After the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Davis left the party. She joined the History of Consciousness Department at UCSC in 1991 and now is a professor emerita.

    26. Barbara Lee (1946-)

    Barbara Jean Lee is a politician serving as the U.S. representative for California’s 12th Congressional District, representing much of Alameda County. Now in her 12th term, Lee has served since 1998, gaining a reputation as a fearless advocate for causes she favors despite political risks. Lee is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (2009–2011) and the chair emeritus and former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (2005–2009). She is the vice chair and a founding member of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. Lee has also co-chaired the House Democratic Steering Committee since 2019. She has played a major role in the antiwar movement, notably in her vocal criticism of the Iraq War and for being the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization of use of force following the Sept. 11 attacks.

    27. Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

    Octavia Estelle Butler was a science fiction author in a field dominated by white men. A recipient of the Hugo and Nebula awards, she was also the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Born in Pasadena, the shy Butler found an outlet at the library reading fantasy, and in writing. She attended community college during the Black Power movement, and while participating in a local writer's workshop, was encouraged to attend the Clarion Workshop, which focused on science fiction. She soon sold her first stories and by the late 1970s had become sufficiently successful as an author that she was able to pursue writing full time. Butler's rise to fame began in 1984 when “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo Award for Short Story; a year later, Bloodchild won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Novelette. During the 1990s, Butler worked on the novels that solidified her fame as a writer: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). Butler died of a stroke at the age of 58. Her papers are held in the research collection of the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

    28. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947-)

    Kareem Abdul Jabbar is one of a handful of the greatest players in NBA history, whose all-time scoring record stood for 34 years before being bested by LeBron James in February 2023. That is not why Jabbar is on this list. He is a prominent public intellectual, an award-winning columnist, and a lifelong activist. In June of 1967, when he was a 20-year-old playing for the UCLA Bruins, Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) joined NFL legend Jim Brown and Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics in a public display of support for Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. The author of more than a dozen best-selling books, many of which deal with Black history and the African-American experience, Jabbar served as a Global Cultural Ambassador under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—by President Barack Obama. “Physically, intellectually, spiritually—Kareem is one-of-a-kind,” Obama said. “An American who both illuminates our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations.” Jabbar, 75, now chairs the Skyhook Foundation, which takes 85 inner-city kids outdoors each week for STEM education.

    29. Kamala Harris (1964-)

    Given that this native Californian is the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States, it’s obvious Kamala Harris belongs on California Local’s list of groundbreaking women from the Golden State. Even before she made it into the White House, Harris had worked her way through other firsts. She was the first woman, the first African American, and the first South Asian American in California history to serve as attorney general—a position she held from 2011 to 2017, leaving to hit another milestone as the first South Asian American to serve in the United States Senate—and only the 11th African American to serve in the legislative body.

    30. John Singleton (1968-2019)

    Director, screenwriter, and producer John Daniel Singleton was the first African American nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director—and at age 24, he was also the youngest person recognized for that award, The Oscar nod came for his feature film debut, Boyz n the Hood (1991). After that Singleton wrote and directed other films such as the romantic drama Poetic Justice (1993), the socially conscious drama Higher Learning (1995), and the historical drama Rosewood (1997), among others. In television, he co-created the television crime drama Snowfall and directed episodes of shows such as Empire, Rebel and the fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award. Singleton died in 2019 following complications from a stroke.


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