How Beach Clubs Changed Santa Monica During A Segregated Era

During the Jim Crow era, Santa Monica beach wasn't too different from other cities in the country. Its prime oceanfront spot was once segregated. The arrival of exclusive beach clubs in the area in the 1920s pushed the African-American community to a sliver of the beach that was referred to as Inkwell.

"A lot of people don’t realize that in terms of the ugliness of discrimination, it was all over the county and they think that California was an exception," Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and doctoral candidate at UC Santa Barbara, tells LAist. "Well, California was an exception only from the standpoint that it wasn’t as violent and malicious as it was in other parts of the country, but it still happened."

A residential community of about 200 African-Americans resided in Santa Monica in the early 1900s and they shared with Caucasians a popular part of the beach cradling the end of Pico Blvd. and the Ocean Park neighborhood.

"Even though civil rights laws in California stated that it was illegal to discriminate against citizens in public spaces, which would have included the ocean front, legal sanctions and private harassment actions were initiated to discourage African Americans from visiting and settling in particular beach locales," Jefferson writes in her journal article, titled, "African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica."

When two successful African-Americans, attorney Charles S. Darden, Esq. and Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company owner Norman O. Houston, bought land at the end of Pico Blvd. in 1922 with intentions to build a resort with beach access, their efforts were squashed. The Santa Monica Bay Protective League, an Anglo group under the guise of a neighborhood protective league which touted "a membership of 1,000 Caucasians," convinced the City Council to change the building ordinances of the area; now, only residential buildings, not resorts, were allowed to be erected in that space. The owner of the land rescinded the sale from the two men and thus, the resort could not be built.

The Los Angeles Times published an article about the Santa Monica Bay Protective League on June 9, 1922 and included a statement from the group that read:

Inasmuch as a certain negro syndicate has announced through the Los Angeles press their intention of making this bay district their beach and bringing thousands of negroes to the beach cities, which we believe would be very detrimental to our property values and our bay district as a whole, this organization will immediately take up this problem which in its opinion is of vital interest to all bay citizens. We believe that they should procure a beach of their own at a point separate and apart from all the white beaches—which would eliminate all possible friction for all time to come.

As harsh as this statement was and despite some reported incidents of police harassment of the blacks in the area, Jefferson says it could have been worse. "In terms of the white population there, they weren’t totally hostile to the people being there," she says, "because they could’ve been uglier than just not allowing them to build the beach club."

What changed everything was the fact that a few years later, whites were able to amend the building ordinance laws and were allowed to build resorts where African-Americans once weren't able to. The first Anglo beach resort to open up was the ritzy Club Casa del Mar (where Hotel Casa del Mar stands today) on the ocean front between Pico Blvd. and Bay St. in 1924, and it had a fence out to the water so folks couldn't trespass into it. (However, the current Casa del Mar Hotel website reported that Club Casa del Mar opened on May 1, 1926, not in 1924.) Members would pay monthly dues of $10 to $12 in 1926, which would cost about $131 to $157 in 2013, according to an inflation calculation from the United States Department of Labor.

In the same spot where Darden and Houston had tried to build their black resort, right at the end of Pico Blvd., came Edgewater Beach Club in 1925 (which is where Shutters on the Beach is today). There were a couple of more resorts that were built in the ensuing years.

The area surrounding the exclusive beach clubs got so crowded that the African-American community moved their hangout by Pico Blvd. south between Bay St. and Bicknell Ave. This area would be referred to as "Inkwell," although it was not a universally-used term; it was a derogatory word used by whites to describe the dark skin color of African-Americans. Some African-Americans refused to use the word Inkwell to describe their area of the beach, while others used it in a sarcastic way; other refused to let the term "Inkwell" bring them down and transformed the word into a powerful one about places they frequented and enjoyed. It was a choice, however, to move their beach south.

"They continued to use the beach once the beach clubs came in—they just moved south," Jefferson says. "They refused to be pushed out of their place by their rich neighbors."

African-Americans (from Santa Monica residents to others traveling in from Los Angeles) continued to spend many a happy memory at Inkwell until the 1960s when the popularity of the area fizzled out. Club Casa del Mar transformed over the years, turning into a hotel and recreation center for U.S. Navy enlisted men and later into Synanon, a substance-abuse rehab center, among other changes. Jefferson writes that the happy atmosphere changed in the 1960s and 1970s after that. It wasn't until 1999 when the building was restored and reopened into what is now the luxurious Hotel Casa del Mar.

Edgewater Beach Club had also had a change of hands, turning into the Jonathan Club, Waverly Club and Ambassador Club. It never had quite the popularity of Club Casa del Mar though, nor did the other resorts built in the 1920s and 1930s.

Verna Williams, who did a four-hour interview as part of Los Angeles Public Library's photographic history project, "Shades of L.A.," (and died in 1998) spent time at Inkwell in her younger years.

"Yeah, we used to go to the beach a lot." Williams said. "Believe it or not, I never did learn how to swim. But I used to love to go there and play in the water. And then get wet, and then come and cover up in the sand."

Inkwell, which was once bustling in its heyday, has changed over recent years. A parking lot now sits on part of area, but the memories do live on.

"All the rest of the beach was privately owned," Williams told the Los Angeles Times in a 1993 interview. "You couldn't go there unless you belonged to a club, and we couldn't belong to a club."

Related:
Photos: When Santa Monica Beach Was Segregated
LAistory: Val Verde, The 'Black Palm Springs'