First published January 6, 2021 | Updated July 15, 2022 –
In a year’s time, Belmar History +Art project’s historian Alison Rose Jefferson and artist April Banks with other contributors and Santa Monica City government staff have produced a resonating multifaceted education, inspirational, remembrance, and commemorative justice initiative. This civic programming elucidates a more complex American story about historical Black life in the South Santa Monica Beach neighborhoods before the Civic Center campus expansion and Interstate 10 Freeway developments in the 1950s–60s. From December 2020 to 2021 BH+A public permanent and ongoing educational programming begins rolling out.
As of late December 2020, visitors have been able to tour the new Historic Belmar Park to view the history interpretation panels. A large sculpture will be installed in late February 2021. A virtual Black History Month discussion about BH+A will be held on Tuesday, February 16. Learn more about the event here and watch the event videotape here. Watch for announcements about additional upcoming BH+A programming to happen soon.
Exhibition and Essay, Time Capsule and Youth Publication and Artwork
When completed, at the perimeter of the new Historic Belmar Park at Fourth Street and Pico Boulevard, Belmar History + Art will feature a exhibition installation of sixteen history interpretative panels with a map researched and written by historian Alison Rose Jefferson (with assistance from Shelly Kale; graphic design by Picnic Design) and a large sculpture, “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas” by artist April Banks.
After physically or eventually virtually touring the exhibition, visitors who want to learn more about the historical Black life in Santa Monica will be able to visit the BH+A website to read an essay by historian Alison Rose Jefferson, “Reconstruction and Reclamation: The Erased African American Experience in Santa Monica’s History.” This essay is an outgrowth of her book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era (University of Nebraska Press, 2020). The essay offers greater detail and more stories about African American families, events, and places, in and around the South Santa Monica Beach neighborhoods before 1960 in the Jim Crow era presented in the park exhibition. Many are new stories which have not been explored before in published works or are not discussed in public memory.
Along with the new essay, check out an English and Spanish exhibition guide. A video exhibition (virtual) site tour and and other community engagement video productions are in the works.
A 50-year Time Capsule has been buried on the park site. It includes publications of poetry, short stories and visual artwork called “Belmar 2070” and “Justice and Joy” designed by Santa Monica High School and Crossroad School for the Arts and Sciences students, respectively. “Belmar 2070” is a speculative fiction publication that imagines what the Belmar neighborhood and adjacent areas might have become had they not be destroyed. For the the “Justice and Joy” zine, students were asked to re-imagine in visual storytelling artwork the Ebony Beach Club, a social club venture that African American entrepreneur Silas White led the development of which was seized by eminent domain by the City of Santa Monica and never completed. Located on this site today is the Viceroy Hotel at 1811 Ocean Avenue. These youth zines will be produced in a print and digital format.
Also deposited in the Time Capsule are postcards and other materials produced for BH+A. The community was invited to add items to the Time Capsule, including letters and drawings to future residents from current ones.
A BH+A exhibition and Historic Belmar Park Virtual Grand Opening program was held on Sunday, February 28 and it can be viewed here. The first sports games will be played at the park soon.
Renderings of the history interpretative panels (above) and sculpture (middle) exhibition being installed at the peremeter of the newly built sports field at Historic Belmar Park at the Civic Center commemorating the historical African Amercian experience in the South Santa Monica Beach neighborhoods. Below the sculpture rendering is the cover of the essay and a description of its content. The essay introduction materials also include information on the significance of the Belmar Histor + Art project, its origins and its contributors.
Grade School Lesson Plans
A particularly exciting and impactful feature of the BH+A project are the grade school lessons created that meets all the California state education, American Culture/Ethnic Studies and frameworks, guidelines and standards for local history designed by University of California, Los Angeles teacher enrichment program at History Geography Project/Center X (Daniel Diaz, project manager) in collaboration with commissioned master public school teachers and lesson plan developers and historian Alison Rose Jefferson. One of the high school lesson plans also meets the California Seal of Civic Engagement criteria. On-line and face to face lessons have been developed for elementary school/3rd and 4th grades by Cristina Paul (UCLA Lab School), for middle school/8th grade by Shomara Godden (Lawndale Schools) and for high school/two lessons by Sara Rodriguez and Adrienne Karyadi (both at Santa Monica High).
The project webpage will contain these lesson plans, along with oral histories and other educational resources. Check the UCLA HGP/Center X and Belmar History + Art webpages for more information on the availability of the different new programming features.
African American Life in South Santa Monica Beach Neighborhoods Before 1960
The first African Americans settled in Santa Monica in the late nineteenth century, joining old Californios and new Mexicans, Latinos, Anglo Americans, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and immigrants of other backgrounds to build the new city. Most African Americans migrated from southern states, attracted by the climate, employment and to escape from Jim Crow laws and anti-black racist practices. Seduced by the scenic, recreation and economic opportunities of the sand and surf resort town, the early African American pioneers came to seek their Golden State and American dreams.
The Civic Center Auditorium area and adjacent neighborhoods in Ocean Park and north of Santa Monica High School were where some of Santa Monica’s early African American citizens lived and contributed to making the city a vibrant and unique place from 1900 to the 1950s. Important businesses in the area provided African Americans accommodations when they came to enjoy the beach a few blocks away. California’s civil rights laws, which were passed as early as 1893, were not always enforced, and displacement due to waves of urban renewal infrastructure projects and anti-Black discriminatory practices impacted these neighborhoods.
African Americans in Santa Monica lived, worked and found happiness in what the area had to offer as they fought to dismantle racial barriers and tirelessly challenged oppression and discrimination. These erased stories of African American residents, business owners, and visitors are important to recount as they insert a broader view of those who contributed to Santa Monica’s development and culture from the late 1800s into the middle decades. Their stories are illuminated in the Belmar History + Art exhibition, essay and other programming which recast the African American experience in California to tell a more complex American story that contribute to equity and social justice for all.
Project Origins and Significance
This programming, Belmar History + Art, is one of the first to move forward in fulfilling the California Coastal Commission’s social justice policy to provide more equity in coastal resources for the benefit of all Californians. It is the first public history and art project of this type the City of Santa Monica has undertaken.
In March 2019, the California Coastal Commission held a meeting in Los Angeles to approve its landmark environmental justice policy. Historian Alison Rose Jefferson had been invited to help set the tone of the meeting with a presentation on the African American experience in Southern California. During the meeting, she suggested that additional permit conditions be added to the City of Santa Monica’s construction plans for the Historic Belmar Park (the new multipurpose sports field at Fourth Street and Pico Boulevard) and the bike path and walkway expansion project between the Santa Monica Pier and Bay Street. These new conditions on the plans would not only ensure the recognition of the historical coastal-zone African American neighborhoods, but would also improve recognition of the historical African American beach culture space at Bay Street.
The commissioners thought well of her suggestions as actions to set in motion the kinds of social and environmental justice strategies they wanted to implement as part of their new mandate to help ensure equitable coastal access for marginalized communities. In late July 2019, the City of Santa Monica Department of Cultural Affairs invited Dr. Jefferson to become the historian for city’s new Applied History project mandated by the California Coastal Commission to fulfill a permit condition for both construction plans. The project was funded by City of Santa Monica Percentage for the Arts Program and the City of Santa Monica Department of Public Works.
Agle, Andy. “An Update About Historic Belmar Park.” City of Santa Monica, November 9, 2020.
“ARJ and Belmar History + Art Team Win Award.” June 6, 2021.
Banks. April. aprilbanks.com.
Bay Street Beach Historic District, National Register of Historic Places listing, June 2019.
Bell, Stephanie. “The Belmar History + Art Project Revives Public Memory of Santa Monica’s Lost African American Neighbhorhood.” The Argonaut, February 26, 2020.
Belmar History + Art lesson plans webpage, UCLA History Geography Project/Center X.
Belmar History + Art webpage, City of Santa Monica.
Belmar History + Art webpage, Public Art Archive.
“Belmar History + Art Commences.” Seascape magazine, December 2019.
California Coastal Commission (CCC).
- Environmental Justice webpage
- Meeting, Wed., March 6, 2019:
- See Item 21f, Application No. 5-18-0767 (City of Santa Monica Civic Center Improvements) at time 3:01:53 (hr:min:sec) to hear Alison Rose Jefferson’s comments to the CCC that it make the City of Santa Monica implement an education program about the African American experience in the coastal zone neighborhoods in Santa Monica as part of the new park construction permit (now called Historic Belmar Park). At time 3:10:30 hear the staff describe changes (suggested by ARJ) to the permit conditions and the Commissioners discussion of the proposed changes. This proposal for public policy evolved into the Belmar History + Art project.
- See Item 21d, Application No. 5-18-0267 (City of Santa Monica Pedestrian and Trail Improvements) at time 5:56:31 (hr:min:sec) to hear Alison Rose Jefferson’s comments regarding signage enhancement recommendation for the Bay Street Beach Historic District (sometimes controversailly called “the Inkwell”).
- Meeting, Fri., March 8, 2019: Hear and see Alison Rose Jefferson’s presentation on African American beach culture in Southern California. Go to smaller view to see the Agenda, Item 4.1.
Dixson, Brennon. “Belmar History + Art Project Sculpture Designs Approved and Revealed.” Santa Monica Daily Press, July 18, 2020.
_____________. “City names new open space ‘Historic Belmar Park.’ “ Santa Monica Daily Press, August 20, 2020.
Farrell, Constance. “History and Art Project will Commemorate the former Belmar Neighborhood” Press Release. City of Santa Monica, December 5, 2019.
_____________. “Historic Belmar Park Becomes Santa Monica’s Newest Open Space and Belmar History + Art Project Expands.” City of Santa Monica, August 26, 2020.
Gruber, Frank. “Historic Belmar Park: gentification and chagrin.” The Healthy City Local Blog, March 6, 2021.
_____________. “What about the whataboutism.” The Healthy City Local Blog, March 18, 2021.
Jefferson, Alison Rose. “Another Step Forward for the Belmar History + Art Civic Commemoration Project.” alisonrosejefferson.com, December 8, 2019.
_____________. Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
_____________. “Reconstruction and Reclamation: The Erased African American Experience in Santa Monica’s History.” Belmar History + Art Project, 2020.
The Journal of American History, December 2021 issue.
Marantos, Jeanette. “Tour Santa Monica’s once-vibrant Black neighborhoods, nearly erased by racism and ‘progress.’” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2021.
Meares, Hadley. “How Racism Ruined Black Santa Monica.” In Arts & Entertainment, LAIST.com, December 23, 2020.
“New Sports Field for All to Enjoy.” Seascape magazine, November 2019.
Nittle, Nadra. “Three Major Project Chronicle Histories and Displacement of African Americans in Santa Monica.” Arts & Entertainment, KCET.org, October 21, 2020.
Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SM.a.r.t.) “A Field of Dreams: Realized.” Santa Monica Mirror, March 4, 2021.
Symposium, “Promised Land, Hallowed Ground: Commemorative Justice and Making Change in Community Heritage Preservation in Southern California, Pt 1.” Impacts of Belmar History + Art in the context of American history and culture discussed by varied community and scholarly stakeholders. Institute for the Study of Los Angeles at Occidential College, March 20, 2021. See the virtual symposium program video and bulletin.
Ulen, Eisa Nefertari. “Reclaiming Black Beaches: On Alison Rose Jefferson’s ‘Living the California Dream.’” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 15, 2020.
Wesler, Ariel. “Exhibit at Santa Monica park sheds light on Black history.” Spectrum News1, August 7, 2021.
Williams, Ann K.. “Frank Gruber to Shine Light on Lost Belmar Triangle.” The LookOut News, September 29, 2011.