The Santa Monica site derogatorily called the “Inkwell” was a popular beach hangout for African Americans from the 1920s to the early 1960s, where they challenged racial hierarchies to enjoy beach public space at the core of California’s mid-twentieth century identity. [View historic site description]
On Coastal Cleanup Day 2013, Saturday, September 21 (CCD 2013) close to 700 people of all ages showed up with good energy for their task of community service to help cleanup the beach. From docents and small exhibits, the day’s volunteers learned about watershed stewardship, sea life and the social history of the Jim Crow era, African American beach site derogatorily called the “Inkwell.”
Alexandra Tower, a Biology professor who co-captained the site for Santa Monica College (SMC) was inspired by the way the young people embraced assisting with volunteers’ registration, and by the number of SMC’s students who participated in the event. Greg Rachal and Marie Rachal represented the Black Surfers Collective as co-captains in managing the volunteer registration. As co-captain of the site Alison Rose Jefferson was responsible for the cultural exhibits. It was wonderful to have the co-sponsorship support and participation of the Santa Monica Conservancy, the California Historical Society and the Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorers (LABUE).
President Carol Lemlein and volunteers David Kaplan, Sara Meric, Thomasine Rogas, Eric Natwig and I acted as docents to tell people about the Santa Monica Conservancy programs, and the Jim Crow era, African American beach site. The banner exhibit on display I designed was called, “Hidden Beach Stories & the California Dream: African Americans, Beach Culture, Santa Monica & the American Narrative.” The exhibit featured text and photographs informing viewers about the subaltern group who used the site, including a section on the last sixty years of African American surf culture. Joseph Windolph led members of the Los Angeles Black Underwater Explorer in talking to the day’s audiences about their exhibit on diving and ocean life.
Engineering the working relationship of allied groups in Coastal Cleanup Day, and maintaining a sense of shared authority in how the message about the site’s social history and community service activity is communicated to media and volunteers continues to be a work in progress. With this the second year of the Coastal Cleanup Day at the Inkwell, new players joined the collaboration programming team. This year some new negotiations occurred over the most effective and meaningful ways to convey the intertwined, yet distinct social value and history of the site with the community service activity of cleaning up the beach.
In this programming venture power relationships, resources and commitment levels of collaborating organizations are unequal in how their respective messages are negotiated and intertwined for the conservation of this seaside natural and cultural landscape. Meaningful and sustained investment in pluralistic nature stewardship and heritage education at the Bay Street monument and Jim Crow era, historical African American beach site at future Coastal Cleanup Days programming will be necessary overtime for the varied supporting organization’s to see results from this programming in their engagement efforts.
Even with these challenges, I strongly believe new partnerships with colleagues in ocean stewardship, the history industry, social action and surfing and other aquatics, are important to continue building future pathways to broader, younger and wider audiences for programming engagement. At these type of events, new and established audiences in the varied heritage conservation and nature conservation movements, and the general public are connecting with new experiences and more culturally inclusive stories of our shared, national heritage, and concern for our natural environment.
Among the many groups and individuals participating at the Inkwell site on CCD 2013, a multi-ethnic group of 20 or so high school age, foster youth affiliated with the UCLA Guardian Scholars program came out with Karen Mack of LA Commons. Stoked Mentoring also was on the beach, along with kids and their parents from the African American family group, Jack and Jill. As well several members of the Black Surfers Collective came out to support the effort, including Roxanne with her father in tow, Delila Vollot and Rusty White. For me it was especially rewarding to see these folks out at this particular community service and educational event.
Two student film crews came out from Santa Monica College and University of Southern California to do class story projects at the Inkwell site. I enjoyed seeing how the young people were thinking about their stories through the questions they asked, and the different people they interviewed representing the different programming organizations and the general public. I look forward to seeing their final production products. It was also nice to see Frank Dawson, filmmaker and former television executive turned Santa Monica College Professor in Communications/Media Studies, out helping the SMC students get their stories developed for filming.
Autumn Burke who is running for California Assembly seat in the 62nd District, and her 70ish aunt joined us. Autumn’s aunt revealed she was so happy to be at the Inkwell site, and to a part of the cleanup on a beach location that was so important to many people of earlier generations. LABUE member Daphne King relayed another story to me I found moving. King, her husband and two other couples, one local and the other visiting out-of-towners, were having dinner at the Casa Del Mar Hotel Restaurant earlier this year, and she relayed the story of Santa Monica’s Inkwell site to all.
Neither her husband, nor the local or out of town guests were familiar with the histories of this Ocean Park neighborhood beach, or the Southern California African American experience at the site. After dinner, King took her companions down to Oceanfront Walk and Bay Street to view the Inkwell landmark monument. As if she was tending to a relative’s grave marker in a cemetery, King said she felt compelled to pull up the weeds that had grown up around it, while viewing the monument with her companions. Stories like Kings and Burke’s aunt reinforce how a sense of place can loom in our personal and collective, memory and identity.
On a personal note, I was appreciative my god son and Santa Monica College student Adam Griffith made an appearance Saturday, September 21, to do his community service and gain a bit of new knowledge, before he went to basketball team practice. Also I won the raffle for a standup paddleboard at Rusty’s on the Pier in Santa Monica during the “after” the cleanup social hour. Winning this board was a really big surprise for me, and a new opportunity for a life and ocean experience that I look forward to!
Heal the Bay garnered much media coverage of CCD 2013. You can look at their website to learn more about this year’s event.