Santa Monica Beach Offers History Lesson on African American Beachgoers

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KPCC's Brian Watt's been on vacation. On a beach somewhere. But not long ago, he discovered that the closest beach to his home harbors some history.

Brian Watt: A few football fields south of the Santa Monica Pier, just beside the bike path near the Hotel Casa Del Mar, there's a plaque that reads, "The Inkwell. A place of celebration and pain."

Alison Rose Jefferson: The celebration was the opportunity to enjoy oneself. The pain was the fact that you couldn't go in a large group to several different places in Los Angeles County at the beach and feel comfortable that you weren't going to be harassed.

Watt: That's historian Alison Rose Jefferson. She wrote the text on the discreet plaque. The city of Santa Monica dedicated it about seven months ago. Jefferson met me there for a history lesson on African-American beachgoers in the Southland during the early decades of the 20th century. By law or by custom, she said, segregation prevailed in this country. But it wasn't as systematic in California.

Jefferson: More or less, people could go wherever they wanted at the public beach areas. There were places that might not serve them, but they could walk along the beach.

Watt: But stuff did happen. In the early 1920s, Jefferson said, two off-duty sheriff's deputies assaulted a black man, Arthur Valentine, while he celebrated Memorial Day with his family in the Topanga area. The deputies accused Valentine of trespassing on private property. After a big court case, a jury acquitted the deputies.

Jefferson: That was one of those things in the '20s that kind of reminded African-Americans that, although things were much better here in Southern California, there were still those ugly incidents of discrimination and segregation that could occur.

Watt: But that didn't keep African-Americans from going to the beach for the same reasons everybody else did.

Navalette Tabor Bailey: To meet the boys, from L.A. (laughs) You know, there weren't that many down here.

["Stuff-Stomp" by Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders]

Watt: That's 93-year-old Navalette Tabor Bailey. "Down here" is Venice, where she's lived since she was six months old.

Bailey: Bay City girls, we all actually married Los Angeles boys, you know. Out of town boys, yeah.

Watt: Back in the day, Los Angeles was out of town. And the "boys" and everyone else arrived at the beach on streetcars, or however they could make it. Ms. Bailey showed me one photo of her cousins in beachwear building human pyramids, and another of a prominent couple posing on the sand wearing their Sunday best: the man in a nifty suit, the woman in a graceful, ankle-length dress. Of course, both wore hats.

Bailey: They were just coming from church on Sunday, and they went down to the beach. That's how they dressed. Now you know they weren't going swimming. No. They were just down there lookin', you know.

Watt: I asked Ms. Bailey whether, as an African-American, she ever felt stuck in one section of the beach.

Bailey: We didn't pay any attention to it, you know, as far as segregation. 'Cause you know, the ocean was free to everybody.

Watt: As the decades passed, the free ocean prevailed over segregated beaches. Older African-Americans who frequented "The Inkwell" beach considered the name pejorative and didn't pass it along to their kids. Forty-four years ago, one of those kids, 10-year-old Rick Blocker, went there for his first surfing lesson. That hooked him for life.

Rick Blocker: In my teenage years, we would try to go to other beaches, and, that didn't have the same kind of tradition. The same kind of background. We would try to go into Orange County, and we would try to feel at home. And people would slash our tires, or people would spray paint on our car, or we'd be called names in the water.

Watt: So Blocker returned to the Inkwell, inspired by the example of the man named on that plaque – Nick Gabaldon, the first documented black surfer. That pioneer taught himself to surf from that beach, and Blocker's son has learned how to ride the waves there too.