Rising Up: African American Sites of Conscience in Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica, CA

New energy has arisen to reclaim the important marginalized California ocean coastline history of African American places of enjoyment, freedom struggle and community and economic development sabotaged during the Jim Crow era (1900s–1960s). Bruce’s Beach (Manhattan Beach) and the Bay Street Beach (Santa Monica) have been sites of conscience and reflection for memorial and celebratory events at this time in 2020 when systematic racial inequalities have been laid bare by the long history of injustice that has led to the death of several African Americans and other people of color.

As a historian I am firmly engaged in encouraging people to use history for social justice in broader education programs that also include wider equity and access for all people for enjoyment of the California coastline and other American cultural and natural places, now and in the future.

Taking time to do a deep dive into learning about the African American experiences at these beach sites used in the recent recognition of the history of racial injustice and calls for social justice action, and pondering the implications of these stories for our lives today, can be advanced by reading my new book, Living the California Dream, African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era.

Bruce’s Beach

Members of the group Anti-Racist Moms (ARMs) pose for a picture during a Junteenth picnic at Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach on Friday, June 19, 2020. Bruce’s Beach was one of the only places in LA County where African Americans could access the beach. It was taken over by the city of Manhattan Beach in later years and annexed as a city park. Then, decades later, in 2007, the city finally rededicated it and returned its name.
Photograph courtesy of Axel Koester, Daily Breeze newspaper.

In the last few months Bruce’s Beach has been the event site of a memorial for Breonna Taylor, the young woman emergency medical technician in Kentucky that was shot dead in her home by police officers executing a drug warrant at the wrong place in March. It has been a celebration space of Father’s Day and Juneteenth, which was June 19th the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas learned the Civil War had ended, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bruce’s Beach was an African American resort community that began in 1912. This Manhattan Beach neighborhood and the resort business, Bruce’s Lodge, where razed in the 1920s through a white supremacist land grab that was supposed to construct a public park.

More than 100 people with the New Black History Makers group showed up with balloons, cupcakes, flowers and signs to commemorate Breonna Taylor’s birthday in early June. Another group, the newly formed Anti-Racist Moms around the South Bay organized its inaugural event, a Juneteenth picnic. The group wanted to show solidarity with nationwide protests against systemic anti-black racism and police brutality which the Black Lives Matter Movement has forced prominently on to the national agenda as part of a reclamation of and commitment to the Black freedom struggle.

The Moms’ mission is to create a safe space for black people, other people of color and allies to discuss and find solutions to the end of the cycle of racism, starting with their children. They want to create awareness of the history and the injustice done to Manhattan Beach’s pioneering African American families to promote change in the hearts and minds of all to move toward a fairer and more socially just society. Members have proposed getting the history of Bruce’s Beach into the local school lessons.

In 2017 I did presentations on this history at two different Manhattan Beach schools and worked with a local resident to do just this – get the history of Bruce’s Beach into lessons of the local schools. We were not successful with this endeavor at that time, but with the current social movement pressures I am hopeful this education initiative will gain meaningful traction to be implemented in the Manhattan Beach and other regional schools.

The Bay Street Beach

Bay Street Beach cultural monument to commemorate African American beach culture in Santa Monica. Photograph by Alison Rose Jefferson, June 28, 2020.

The Bay Street Beach site sometimes controversial called “the Inkwell,” has had on-going investment in the pluralistic heritage and nature education through public and private partnerships in support of social and environmental justice, along with heritage and nature conservation ideals. This programming, such as — Nick Gabaldon Day, International Coastal Cleanup Day and field trips for youngsters from underserved communities — actively connects diverse publics to more complex culturally inclusive stories of our collective national history, social action, beach access issues, ocean life, and watershed stewardship intersecting with beach recreation.

People prepare to surf at a Black Girls Surf paddle out in memory of George Floyd in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 5, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / NBCNews.com.

At the Bay Street Beach, the surfing community held a paddle outs to celebrate the life of George Floyd and to call attention to the social justice issues of the day. These events were hosted by different groups, including Black Girls Surf (June 5) and California Mermaid Photography (May 29).

At each of these events a hundred or so people participated in the Hawaiian burial ritual of a paddled out on boards past the surf break to form a large circle, splashed water and tossed flowers to honor Floyd and others who have died. California Assembly Member Richard Bloom came out to support this May 29 event at Bay Street.

The city of Encinitas was also the site of another paddle out in the multiple events that took place worldwide from California to Texas to New York to France to Senegal and to Australia on June 5. An organizer of the June 5 event expressed her ambitious goal was to get the predominantly white Southern California surfing community involved with social justice. I join her in hoping that activities like this paddle out for social justice will increase awareness and constructive anti-racism action.

In June 2019, this same site was honored with a listing as the Bay Street Beach Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service for its significance in the African American experience in United States history.

Verna Deckard Lewis (later Williams) and friend posing at Santa Monica’s Bay Street beach, 1931. Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

This is the first historic district in Santa Monica to receive this national honor. Michael Blum of Sea of Clouds and I were honored with the 2020 Cultural Landscape Award for our accomplishment of getting the Bay Street Beach Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Santa Monica Conservancy.

As early as 2008 a cultural monument was installed by the City of Santa Monica to officially recognized the Jim Crow era, historical African American beach gathering place at Bay Street and Oceanfront Walk. Also recognized was Nick Gabaldón, the first documented surfer of African American and Mexican American descent in the Santa Monica Bay.

Surfers participate in a paddle out ceremony at the Inkwell in Santa Monica, Calif., a beach historically known as a surfing refuge for African Americans, on June 5, 2020, to honor the life of George Floyd. Photograph courtesy of Ashley Landis / AP / NBCNews.com

Under the California Coastal Commission’s newly enacted social and environmental justice policy mandate, the City of Santa Monica was asked to develop an education program to teach the public about the history of the African Americans who lived and worked in its southern civic center area in the coastal zone prior to an expansion and other related waves of urban renewal projects that displaced their community before 1960 as part of the new multipurpose sports park construction plan. The Belmar History + Art project will include an outdoor exhibition of interpretative history text panels and a permanent art installation, grade school lesson plans, and other education and information programming including a website that will bring this area’s history to life for present and future generations.

Plans are also in the works for new educational signage and interpretative elements to illuminate the African American beach culture heritage at the Bay Street Beach Historic District site.

Postcard to share information about the project with the public. Designed by April Banks, Fall 2019.


Bay Street Beach, Santa Monica, CA, paddle out for George Floyd and a call for social justice action. Photograph courtesy of Spectrum News 1, June 3, 2020.

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