Photos: When Santa Monica Beach Was Segregated

Editors’ Note 11/22: Alison Rose Jefferson, a doctoral student who is studying this subject, wrote in to set us straight and said that a lot of the information floating around about Inkwell is inaccurate. There were some errors in this article that have since been corrected—see our notes down below

The story of Santa Monica's Inkwell beach sounds like something out of the Jim Crow South. During the 1920's, the 200-foot-long strip was one of the only beaches in the county—save for a sliver of Manhattan Beach—where African-Americans were allowed to enjoy the ocean.

The beach started out as a hangout for members of Phillips Chapel CME Church.* The black community was forced to find their own piece of beach to feel safe at after a horrific incident at Santa Monica Beach.** Arthur Valentine, a black chauffeur, and his family and friends went to a whites-only area of Topanga Canyon and were forced off of the premises by the police, according to historian Alison Rose Jefferson. Police beat and shot him, but when he filed a complaint, authorities charged him with assault of a deadly weapon.

So the black community settled on Inkwell Beach, a polluted and abandoned area that nobody else would have wanted at the time, according to LA Observed.*** The beach was a popular hangout for African-Americans because it was located near the residential black community in Santa Monica. The black beachgoers had shared the part of the beach on Pico Blvd. with whites; however, the African-American community moved away from the exclusive whites-only beach clubs to the area from Bay St. to Bicknell Ave.

The beach Inkwell, nestled on Ocean Front Walk and just steps away from Casa Del Mar Hotel, was a spot for swimming, surfing, volleyball, and even was home to a bathhouse called La Bonita, according to The Los Angeles Times. It was also where Nick Gabaldon, the first known African-American surfer, practiced riding waves at the beach in the 1940s. The name "Inkwell" was an offensive term used by whites to describe areas frequented by the black community (there's also an Inkwell Beach in Martha's Vineyard.)

Even though a 1927 court case about public beach segregation in Manhattan Beach required civil rights laws to be upheld, according to Jefferson, racial tensions were still bubbling at beaches for decades afterwards.**** African Americans still went to Inkwell through to the 1950s so they could enjoy the beach without being harassed. An popular African-American beach club, the Pacific Beach Club, in Orange County mysteriously burned down in 1926 before it even opened and was thought of to be the work of the local Ku Klux Klan, reported OC Register.*****

This set of vintage photos come from the Los Angeles Public Library's "Shades of L.A." project, which celebrates the diversity of our city. The snapshots are from Verna Williams' personal collection, coupled with a four-hour interview she did with the organization.

"All the rest of the beach ... you couldn't go there unless you belonged to a club, and we couldn't belong to a club," she said.

*The beach did not start as a hangout for members of Phillips Chapel CME Church, but rather as a popular area near the residential black community of Santa Monica. LAist regrets this error.
**The Arthur Valentine incident took place in Topanga Canyon, not Santa Monica, as the Los Angeles Times reported.
***Inkwell Beach was not a polluted and abandoned area that nobody else wanted at time, as reported by LA Observed; in the beginning, the both whites and blacks shared the beach area near Pico Blvd. as well as the storm drain that impacted both groups.
****Public beach segregation laws were not thrown out in 1927 as originally reported by the Los Angeles Times, but Civil Rights laws were forced to be upheld rather than disregarded due to a 1927 civil rights court case regarding segregation in Manhattan Beach.
*****The Pacific Beach Club burned down before it could be enjoyed by anyone. LAist regrets the error.

If you have any retro photos that you'd like to share, email them to us at tips@laist.com with the subject line: "Vintage Photos."

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