How Racism Ruined Black Santa Monica
In the 1940s, Nick Gabaldón, an athletic, handsome student at Santa Monica High School, would often escape class to Bay Street Beach, a half-mile stretch of shoreline roughly between Pico and Bicknell Streets, by the Casa Del Mar hotel. Derisively called "the Inkwell" by some white Angelenos, Bay Street Beach was a haven for people of color.
Here, Gabaldón would bodysurf for hours, impressing two white lifeguards who loaned him a rescue board. With this heavy, 13-foot board, Gabaldón taught himself to surf, becoming the first documented Black surfer in America. He eventually took to riding the waves in Malibu, paddling six miles north and another six miles back, because he knew he would not be welcome walking on most of Santa Monica's beaches.
From the 1910s to the 1960s, Bay Street Beach was a recreational center for people of color. Although restrictions keeping African Americans off Southern California beaches had been struck down in 1927, Black people often faced discrimination and abuse when they ventured onto L.A. County beaches. Many chose to go to Bay Street for safety, comfort and community.
Today, a small marker honors its place in California history as well as the legacy of Gabaldón, who died in a surfing accident in 1951. In 2019, the 53-acre Bay Street Beach was recognized as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. But Bay Street Beach represents a fraction of Santa Monica's African American legacy.
A Growing Community
In the 1880s, Louis Green and his family were the first African Americans to settle in the tiny, brand new beach community of Santa Monica, according to Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, historian and author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. For years, Jefferson, a historian and author, has worked to uncover the history of the Black communities that thrived in Santa Monica.
Green holds an important place in L.A. history. He was the first Black person to register to vote in the region after the 15th Amendment, which affirmed the right of U.S. citizens to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," was passed in 1870.
More African Americans joined the Greens by moving to Santa Monica during the 1890s, establishing a small neighborhood around Broadway between 4th and 6th Streets. The heart of the community would form in approximately a half-mile radius around the Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, located in an old Colonial Revival schoolhouse on the corner of 4th and Bay. It still stands today in the Ocean Park neighborhood.
"The Daily Outlook newspaper reported that the Cornerstone dedication ceremony held for Phillips Chapel on Sunday, October 31, 1909 was attended by more than 100 people. Some family members of the African American clans, such as the Brunsons, the McCarrolls, the Gordons, the Reeses, the Tabors and the Jacksons, all living in the Santa Monica Bay region for a few years by then, may have attended the event."
"That was the center of the African American Community from the standpoint of an institutional base," Jefferson says.
Pastor James A. Stout and his wife, Mary, were honored elders and leaders in the Santa Monica community. They were beloved in the neighborhood and their descendants still live in Santa Monica.
During the early 20th century, more African Americans would move to greater Los Angeles, lured by stories (propagated by such figures as W.E.B. Du Bois) of a golden world free of racism and oppression.
"My father migrated here during The Great Migration," Santa Monica resident Carolyne Edwards told The Argonaut in February 2020. "He came here just because he had heard it was such a wonderful place. So, he went back to Texas, packed up everything and bought property in Santa Monica. We've been here ever since."
But the Golden State was no racial paradise. In Santa Monica, as in greater Southern California, many African Americans found their opportunities almost as limited as in the rest of Jim Crow America. According to Jefferson, before the 1950s, "Most African Americans were working in some sort of service capacity, whether it be working as domestics, working for companies as janitors, or working in laundries."
Some Black people also opened hair salons, restaurants, shoe repair shops, barber shops, gardening companies, trucking services and other small businesses. Charles E. A. Brunson, who had settled in Santa Monica by the early 1900s, operated a horse and wagon service, taking luggage from the local train station to fancy Santa Monica hotels like the Arcadia.
Although most Black Santa Monicans were working class, a middle and upper class made up mostly of property owners, clergy and business people began to emerge.
Marcus O. Tucker, the first Black doctor in Santa Monica, opened his own practice in the 1930s. In 1937, he and his wife, Essie, hired legendary African American architect Paul R. Williams to design a large Colonial Revival home in the city. Their cocktail parties, along with the goings-on at Santa Monica social clubs such as the Les Uniques Charity Club, frequently made the pages of Black-owned L.A. papers like the Los Angeles Sentinel.
Essie Tucker, an educator and activist, promoted business entrepreneurship among African Americans although she was not allowed to teach in Santa Monica Public Schools.
"African Americans in Santa Monica could not generally get jobs utilizing their education," Jefferson says. "For instance, there were several people that were teachers who came to Santa Monica prior to 1950 and they couldn't get jobs with the Santa Monica school system because they wouldn't hire them." Instead, teachers had to teach for the LAUSD, which had been hiring Black teachers since the 1910s.
Less than a mile away from Phillips Chapel was the Belmar neighborhood, which grew up around Fourth Street and Pico Boulevard. Historian and Santa Monica Conservancy board member Nina Fresco says the area was more commercial and transient than the neighborhood around the church.
By 1914, La Bonita, a bathhouse catering to people of color, had opened on Pico. Over the years, this bathhouse, where vacationers could rent bathing suits and stay for the evening, would go by many names. In different iterations it would have a tennis court, an outdoor lawn with an open pit for weenie roasts and a bar.
"On Thursday night, that was a fun place to go because of all the maids when they got off, they would go there and hang out," a longtime resident named Lloyd Allen told Jefferson.
These Black-owned restaurants, bars, rental cottages and stores gave people of color a sense of community and security.
"That neighborhood was very important because it gave African Americans the ability to utilize the beach... They could be assured that with the church and the bathhouse and the few restaurants and the people that they knew, they could have someplace to go to get some food, to change their clothes, to go to the beach," Jefferson says.
However, racism often prevented simple enjoyment. In the 1920s, a man named George Caldwell opened a dance hall and event space on Third Street. He held weekly Sunday Dances and other events. On June 10, 1921, an ad in the California Eagle proclaimed that an "Emancipation Celebration" would feature live music and good company. "Everybody will be there," the ad said. "Plenty of barbeque for all."
"It sounded like it was jumping," Jefferson says. Too jumping for racist residents and Santa Monica officials.
First, they banned dances on Sundays so Caldwell couldn't host his weekly shindig. When Caldwell moved it to another night, the city adopted a total ban on dance halls in residential districts, Jefferson says.
According to the Los Angeles Times in July 1922:
"An ordinance prohibiting dancing at any public hall in the residential districts of Santa Monica and Ocean Park was adopted by the City Council today. The ordinance was aimed at Caldwell's negro dance hall on Third Street, which has caused many complaints from near-by residents during the past year. ... A delegation of negroes, headed by George W. Caldwell, voiced their protest to the passage of the ordinance, but it was adopted by a unanimous vote. About seventy-five members of the Santa Monica Bay Protective League, which is opposed to negroes encroaching upon the city, were present to support the passage of the ordinance."
Caldwell's was forced to close.
"White people closed it down because it was too successful. That's what I think. And they didn't like the fact that these Black people were there having a good time, and they couldn't legislate them having a good time at night. So they passed ordinances to say that you couldn't have this dance hall. Now, mind you, white people who may have been attending those same kinds of places on the pier, they weren't closing them down," Jefferson says.
During the early 1920s, the Santa Monica Bay Protection League ramped up its attacks on Black commerce. According to the Los Angeles Times, the group hoped to eliminate "all objectionable features or anything that now is or will prove a menace to the bay district... or prove detrimental to our property values."
"Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Sylvester L. Weaver Sr. urged fellow chamber directors to stop the sale of private beach in Santa Monica before the public found "the ocean fenced off." He continued: "In front of where I have a summer residence... a piece of land has been fenced off and none but colored people allowed. I was born pretty far south to have that in front of my house."
The league found another target in 1922 when prominent L.A. businessman Norman O. Houston (who would later found Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company) and lawyer Charles S. Darden bought land at the end of Pico Boulevard (where Shutters is now located). They planned to build a Black beach resort and amusement facility but were blocked by the odious Protective League, which according to Jefferson was formed expressly to keep Black people out of Santa Monica and its beaches.
In 1922, 600 white residents showed up to a Santa Monica City Council meeting to protest the plans. The council capitulated, passing an ordinance stating that only a single-family home could be built on the property.
Two years later, the Santa Monica City Council moved to let white investors build the Casa Del Mar resort, among other white beach resorts, on the same land. "This white supremacist economic sabotage was instituted to stymie Black economic development and community development," Jefferson says.
Despite all that, Black people refused to stop enjoying the simple pleasure of a sunny day at Bay Street Beach.
"You would see everybody... all your friends there," Ivan J. Houston told Jefferson in the Argonaut in 2015.
Verna Deckard Lewis Williams told the Los Angeles Times about driving down in her little Ford from Los Angeles by way of Pico with her "joy girls," excited to spend a day at the beach.
Santa Monica's first African American mayor, Nat Trives, who served from mayor 1975 to 1979, told the Los Angeles Times that as a teenager, "I may have taken advantage of the beach parking lot to explore the mysteries of lovers' lane."
Beachgoers also found innovative ways to deal with the white beach clubs built at Bay Street Beach. According to Rasmussen, Black vacationers would dance on the sand to the sounds of bands coming from Casa Del Mar and used their powerful lights to aid in nighttime swims. However, they still faced discrimination from the club's white members. Rasmussen writes:
"[Verna] Williams remembered once when playing with a beach ball at Inkwell, the ball accidentally flew over the fence onto Club Casa Del Mar's turf. "When I ran over there to get it, a little old lady comes running up to me saying, 'You got no business over here.' And I just looked at her, didn't say anything. I just took my ball and went back, where I belonged."
Racism also affected Santa Monica's Black-owned businesses.
There was the Arkansas Traveler Inn, which according to an ad in California Eagle, offered "southern style barbecue with genuine barbeque sauce and fried chicken." Thurman's Rest-A-While Apartments, located at 5th and Broadway, offered overnight accommodations. Max-Mac's Café, at 2115 Beach Front, enticed customers with hamburgers and soft drinks.
Many of these small businesses suffered since most white people wouldn't patronize them, according to Jefferson.
Destruction In The Name Of Progress
By the 1940s, African American neighborhoods in Santa Monica were also increasingly threatened.
"Santa Monica, we always think of it as a rich place, but that's actually really recent history, and in the old days there was always kind of a scrabbly quality to the city," Fresco says.
In the late 1940s, city manager Randall Dorton aimed to redevelop large chunks of the beach town, especially those areas with majority minority populations. "Dorton wanted to 'clean up the city,' and make it richer, fancier and better, so he had this idea to do all of this condemnation and build all this stuff," Fresco says.
In 1957, the city adopted its first master plan. Not only was the Belmar area mostly flattened by eminent domain to make way for the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and other public areas, the 10 Freeway was also planned for majority minority residential neighborhoods in the Pico area.
Fresco, who has studied archival maps of the area, says it's obvious that racism and classism led leaders to choose these areas. "It's shocking that they chose the route that they chose," Fresco says. "I mean it's very visible just with the naked eye."
The construction of the freeway, which was completed in 1964, took out around 500 small homes and businesses, according to Jefferson. Some families were forced to move more than once as the city gobbled up more land through eminent domain.
"We tried to stop (the freeway)," Santa Monican Vabel Reed told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "Some of us stood in front of the bulldozer to stop it. We walked. We fought. We picketed. They overwhelmed us. After the freeway came, things started to go downhill."
The one-two punch of the Civic Center and the freeway had a devastating impact on Santa Monica's Black communities.
"You knocked out folks who were living by the beach, whether they owned or rented, and they had to move. Some of those people moved into the inland neighborhoods, and some of them just moved out of Santa Monica. As for the freeway construction... that impacted the development of the African American middle class and other communities of color in Santa Monica," Jefferson says.
At its peak, Black people made up approximately 25% of Santa Monica's population in certain neighborhoods, depending on how they were drawn. Today, they make up around 4% of the city's overall population. However, their roots run deep. Families still come from all over the Southland to attend services at Phillips Chapel.
Alison Rose, who is project historian for an initiative spearheaded by the City of Santa Monica called the Belmar History + Art Civic Commemoration Project, is part of a team unearthing and recording the history of Black Santa Monica.
On August 25 of this year, the Santa Monica City Council named the city's newest open space. Historic Belmar Park, which will abut a new soccer field next to the Civic Auditorium, will honor the history of African Americans in Santa Monica. The outdoor memorial will include interpretive text and panels researched and written by Jefferson, as well as a public art installation by the artist April Banks that reimagines destroyed beach cottages. The project is scheduled to open in early 2021.
Two other projects are also in the works, according to Nadra Nittle of KCET. The 18th Street Arts Center's Culture Mapping 90404 is archiving the history of the community using maps and oral histories. Santa Monica native Carolyne Edwards is also documenting Black and Brown Santa Monica histories through the Quinn Research Center.
Jefferson hopes these projects will help Californians better understand their rich, often hidden, history.
"It is about making this area more accessible so that people understand that there weren't just a bunch of white people out here," Jefferson says. "There were people of color who were striving to have businesses and to enjoy California's outdoor resources just like everybody else. This whole project, for me, is an environmental and social justice statement. African Americans and other people of color have historic and cultural sites. They shouldn't be erased from the narrative of who has lived here."
Editor's Note: We have updated this story to reflect a more nuanced explanation of Santa Monica's population statistics. Black people once made up approximately 25% of the city's population but only in certain neighborhoods. They probably did not comprise 25% of the total population.