Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

Andy Kirk

Second Committee Member

Marcia Gallo

Third Committee Member

Todd E. Robinson

Fourth Committee Member

Tanachai Mark Padoognpatt

Number of Pages



This dissertation examines the black struggle for racial equality in the Golden State’s capital from 1940-1988 and an integral leader of the movement, Virna Canson. Canson fought for nearly fifty years to dismantle discriminatory practices in housing, education, employment and worked to protect consumers. Her lifetime of activism reveals a different set of key issues people focused on at the grassroots level and shows how the fight for freedom in California differed from the South because the state’s discriminatory practices were harder to pinpoint. Her work and the larger black community’s activism in Sacramento also reveals how the black freedom struggle was not just located in a few geographical hotbeds in California, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but existed in smaller cities as well. By focusing on the life of Canson, another layer of the black freedom struggle emerges in California showing how even people in smaller, secondary cities such as Sacramento were instrumental in the black freedom struggle. Canson’s emergence as a leader in the black freedom struggle occurred because she was unwilling to part with her perception of the California Dream, where she could live, work and raise her children in an environment free from racism. When she discovered the existence of laws that mimicked the laws of the south she decided to dismantle these laws and create pathways for black community development. By including her activities within the larger black freedom struggle, another facet of the fight emerges- the fight to create an independent economic basis for the black community and consumer protections. Canson believed consumer and economic rights were just as important as access to housing, employment, education and voting. In addition, by focusing on Canson I was able to expand the time frame of the black freedom struggle in Sacramento. California passed civil rights legislation before any other state in the nation. The state embraced a civil rights agenda but this acceptance was short lived and residents became concerned that their rights and “freedom of choice” were being usurped by practices of reverse discrimination. This dissertation connects the early years of activism in the state’s capital with the 1970s and 1980s and reveals the challenges blacks continued to face in a state where conservative backlash emerged. I argue, Canson’s lifetime of activism in the black freedom struggle was vital to California and led to the establishment of a stronger black community not only in Sacramento, but also throughout the state.


Black Freedom Struggle; California; Civil Rights Movement; Economics; Virna Canson


African American Studies | American Studies | Gender and Sexuality | Race and Ethnicity | United States History | Women's Studies

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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