BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
“One of our early Black residents was a local barber named Joseph McAfee – a contributing citizen, a soldier, and an underground activist. It is likely McAfee arrived in California in the early to mid-1840s…”
October 14, 2022
By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
When you look around the streets of Benicia, it is obvious that there are fewer Black faces than white. The 2020 population data from the US Census reports that there are only 3.22% African Americans and 9.51% People of Mixed Race living here. However, this data is only reflective of numbers, not of the remarkable history of Blacks living in Benicia. Here is one Benicia man’s story, steeped in California and American history.
In September of 1850, when the State of California was admitted into the Union, there were 21 Black residents within Solano County. Six of them resided in Benicia, which at that time, had a total population of 480 people. One of our early Black residents was a local barber named Joseph McAfee – a contributing citizen, a soldier, and an underground activist.
It is likely McAfee arrived in California in the early to mid-1840s, during the great Western migration, when California was still a Mexican territory. At that time, slavery was legal in this territory, and most Blacks arrived here with their subjugators. Fourteen of the 21 original Black Solano County residents were bound for Vacaville as “indentured” slaves. Although it is not clear whether McAfee was a former slave or not, he allegedly arrived in California as a free man.
In June of 1846, Joseph McAfee joined many other California settlers in Sonoma for the rebellion known as the Bear Flag Incident, a revolt instigated by John C. Fremont against Mexican government rule. With McAfee’s and other Black participants’ help, the rebellion prevailed. Mexican general Mariano Vallejo was temporarily imprisoned, and the territory was declared the “Bear Flag Republic,” which paved the way for eventual California statehood.
In 1849, McAfee, along with hundreds of other African Americans, joined the George Wyatt gold mining expedition. They mined at Murphy’s Diggings in Calaveras County. A year later, many of the enslaved Blacks who joined the party were able to purchase their freedom with their earnings from the prosperous mine.
Meanwhile, as California prepared to become a State, the status of People of Color did not improve. In 1849, during the California Constitutional Convention held in Monterey, lawmakers enacted several discriminatory pieces of legislation which further disenfranchised Africans, descendants of Africans, and Native American people. The new laws interfered with daily freedoms, rights to land ownership, citizenship, and other oppressive codes similar to those enacted in other parts of the country during that time.
In 1850, as California was granted statehood, Joseph McAfee settled in Benicia and opened up a community barbershop with his earnings from the gold mines. Although California was declared a “Free State,” within a year the new State of California passed its own version of the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of runaway slaves to their owners. McAfee took action and joined the other local abolitionists in the establishment and operation of the Western Underground Railroad in Solano County, creating a safe haven for those seeking freedom from slavery during pre-Civil War California.
McAfee remained in Benicia until the mid-1860s before moving to Santa Cruz, shortly after the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in all States. His efforts in the Underground Railroad helped to empower those who were wrongfully enslaved and secured a path towards a more equitable society. And his contributions helped bring a special part of history to Benicia.
Now, nearly 160 years later, there is still work to be done. Although legally all citizens have the right to freedom, land and business ownership, voting, etc. there is still racial discrimination, both systemically and individually, directed towards People of Color. It continues to be the goal of Benicia Black Lives Matter and other organizations directed towards positive change to help usher in a new, more equitable era free from racism and discrimination. If you would like to join us in this effort, please contact us at www.benicia blacklivesmatter.com.
*The information in this article is based on information from the “North Bay Area African American TimeLine 1850-1925” and a 2012 article from the Daily Republic, entitled, “Exhibit Highlights Benicia’s African American Heritage,” written by Ian Thompson.