Black History Month

Black history is American history, and while Black history is being made every day of every month, each February our nation offers special commemoration of Black History Month to highlight the African American experience.  

In the centuries leading up to the Spanish colonization of Alta California, tens of thousands of Africans were brought to Mexico as slaves, just as they had been brought to the English colonies in North America as free, forced labor. There were various issues with other sources of labor: indigenous peoples across the Americas died from colonial violence and European diseases in great numbers, and white indentured servants and Asian migrants were either too few in number, unwilling to perform the types of labor required, or deemed too high in labor costs. This resulted in the implementation of a system of slavery upon Africans, who were kidnapped, bought, and sold. 

In 1775-1776, while California was still a colony of Spain, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition across the Sonoran Desert and into the Gila River basin of Arizona, then west to California. The expedition included free Afro-Latinos who had settled in the towns of northern Sonora. People of African descent were absorbed into New Spain’s society more readily than they were by the English colonists. Mexico, having gained its independence from Spain in 1821, abolished the practice of slavery in 1829. But between 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, effectively putting California under American control, and 1865, when slavery was officially abolished in the United States, California was known as a “free state.” This was a complex, sometimes contradictory categorization that didn’t always protect the rights of African Americans and Afro-Latinos.

While there were only eight African Americans or Afro-Latinos (listed as “blacks”) counted in San Diego County on the 1850 census, in Old Town San Diego, African American residents Allen Light and Richard Freeman were property and business owners with prominent standing in the community. As part of our commemoration of Black History Month, we invite you to learn more about Allen Light’s life and his time in Old Town San Diego. 

For a Spanish version of this video, please visit our YouTube channel

Learn more about the story of Allen Light through a biographical sketch and journal article from the San Diego History Center.  Learn more about Richard Freeman through a biographical sketch from BlackPast.org.  For students, please scroll down to the Youth Educational Materials section for a reflection activity and a coloring sheet related to the video. 

The introduction to the City of San Diego’s “Old Town San Diego Community Plan” offers additional historical background on Allen Light, Richard Freeman, and the African American and African Hispanic population of San Diego County in the 1850s. Read the plan in its entirety here with the introduction excerpted here.

Resources for Further Exploration

Regional Stories of San Diego County and Beyond

Celebrate San Diego: Black History & Heritage, San Diego History Center 

Featuring Old Town stories like Allen Light and The San Diego Union, as well as the much broader story of San Diego County, explore this important project from the San Diego History Center to learn more about our region’s Black heritage. 

Celebrate San Diego: Black History & Heritage is a new project of the San Diego History Center. More than an exhibition with a limited life span, this initiative is multi-layered and has life in the physical, the digital, as well as the SDHC permanent collection to be shared and studied for generations to come. Check back here on our website and through our social media channels – starting February 2021 – to experience (and contribute) to this shared journey.” 

“Black Pioneers in San Diego, 1880-1920,” Gail Madyun and Larry Malone, San Diego History Center 

Though published in 1981, this article gives a good overview of the population of African American residents in San Diego starting in 1880, with a short introduction of those who came prior to that.

San Diego’s Historic Places: Black Pioneers, KPBS-SD

Featuring Professors Chuck Ambers and Carrol Waymon as well as historian David Lewis and city planner Kathy Winterrowd, these videos explore the Black history and heritage of San Diego, from Old Town to downtown, and more. 

“Nate Harrison: Archaeological Myth Busting,” Dr. Seth Mallios, Save Our Heritage Organization

Mallios provides insight and context for the 20,000 artifacts discovered during archaeological investigations at the homestead site of one of rural San Diego County’s most famous pioneers, Nate Harrison, overturning a century of misconceptions about his life. 

“Coleman Creek,” Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California, National Park Service. 

Learn more about Fred Coleman, a Black rancher and miner, who was the first to discover gold in the hills of San Diego County.

LOST LA: Borderlands, PBS 

While this half hour video focuses on Los Angeles, it’s important to note that Pío Pico, who settled in San Diego in the 1820s and became the last Governor of Alta California during Mexican Rule in the 1840s, was Afro-Mexican and exemplifies the early nineteenth century’s evolving understanding and deployment of racial and ethnic categories. Though of indigenous, African, and Spanish ancestries, his father, José María Pico, demonstrates the fluidity of these racial categories as his categorization changed from census to census to erase his indigenous and African ancestry and instead be usurped as Spanish to participate in the dominant cultural regime. 

“The Life and Times of Pío Pico, Last Governor of Mexican California,” Dr. William D. Estrada, KCET

If you’re interested in learning more about Pío Pico, explore this comprehensive overview of his life and career.  Dr. William D. Estrada explains why Pico’s “significance as an historical figure, as well as his connection to the contemporary Latino and African-American communities, is worth remembering.”

Other historic sites and museums to explore:

San Diego History Center 

San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art 

Casa del Rey Moro African Museum, San Diego 

California African American Museum 

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

Youth Educational Materials

Reflection Activity: Allen Light’s Freedom Papers

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, when California was under its control, but the United States didn’t abolish it until 1865. Between 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, effectively putting California under American control, and 1865, when slavery was officially abolished in the United States, California was known as a “free state,” a complex, sometimes contradictory categorization that didn’t always protect the rights of African Americans and Afro-Latinos.  During this period of history, legally free African Americans were required to carry Certificates of Freedom, or “freedom papers.”  Another version that was allowed were “sailor protection papers,” and that is what Allen Light acquired in 1827.  Complete this reflection activity to learn more about the journey of these important documents, and put yourselves in the place of the people who handled them.

Coloring Sheet: The Story of Allen Light

For more general activities related to Black History Month, visit:

The National Park Service’s African American Heritage Resources

The National Endowment for the Humanities Teacher's Guide to African American History and Culture in the United States

The National Archives’ African American History Month Resources