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Jim Crow in SoCal

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

April 11th, 2022:

Most people arrive to Santa Monica with excitement to live in a city that’s sunny almost all year round, but still cooler than some of the inland cities surrounding Los Angeles in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. People intend to enjoy its beachy, coastal ambience. Some are even intrigued by the surf culture and skater culture that Santa Monica and nearby Venice Beach give off. Some are drawn by the newer modern/Bauhaus and Californian looking architecture with a touch of the mostly historical Bungalow architecture that occupies most residential neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Most of all, Santa Monica is perceived by many to be the perfect place to enjoy outdoor and coastal leisure, (and now its several well-known shopping boulevards) though some groups had a harder time with that than others. Santa Monica is home to the historical Bay Street Beach, which served as a designated area for African Americans to gather and enjoy what Santa Monica had to offer, free from discrimination and bigotry by white populations. It was difficult, but there was plenty of determination to be able to take part in the enjoyment of sunny California.

After racial restriction attempts at California’s public beaches came to a stop in 1927, Bay Street Beach was a popular gathering place for African Americans. Known as the earliest African American community settlement in the 4th Street vicinity of Santa Monica, the coastal refuge was located down the hill from the first African American church in Santa Monica that was established in 1905 called Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. It was also situated close to Pico Boulevard, which is where monetary establishments such as Shutters Hotel and the Casa del Mar are right now.

Walking around the general area today, it looks like a typical beach in Santa Monica. You can clearly see the Santa Monica Pier less than a mile up north, and then Venice Beach and even planes taking off in the distance at LAX a few miles south. There’s a decent sized grass area right behind a parking lot (which is right by the beach and the ocean walk) and nearby on the beach, there is a plaque situated on a rock that honors Bay Street Beach as a historical district in Santa Monica. It reads: “The Inkwell. A Place of Celebration and Pain.”

As I walked around, I realized that I had never been there before. I thought I had seen every square mile of Santa Monica before, especially being born in the city. So it dawned on me that I still have a lot to see and a lot to learn about the city and its past. I walked down a small hill from my car to the beach. Hotel Casa del Mar was on my right-hand side and in front of me was the bike path and ocean walk where people were either strolling or riding a bike, going about their days. The area looks very much like it could have been a pleasant, closed off space to hold gatherings once in a while. I walked around until I found the plaque. In addition to the quote above, the plaque had a very brief description of the park’s history so that people who read it can know what the place used to mean.

This is a story about African American leisure and struggles in specifically what was known as Bay Street Beach in Santa Monica, where there were attempts by the local government in Santa Monica and local citizens to make life harder to enjoy for African Americans, including Carolyne Edward’s parents when they first moved out to the west coast. Ultimately, this is a story about California's Jim Crow era.

I personally do not play a role in the topic of this story, besides the fact that I myself grew up in Southern California and enjoyed the benefits of living here as someone who does not identify as a person of color. I chose to write on this topic because the story of Bruce’s Beach that took place down in Manhattan Beach sparked my interest in racial discrimination during the Jim Crow era in southern California.

We often associate Jim Crow with the Southern region of the country, and though that may be accurate, I had a feeling it did not stay put down there. Having been fortunate enough to be born and raised in the Los Angeles area, I was curious to explore how Jim Crow went down in a more progressive state. California has often been considered a safe haven from racism for African Americans and other minority populations, so writing a story on this topic elicited some anger and disappointment in me when I found that was not always the case. With time, Jim Crow seemed to have made its way all over the country.

Developing and writing this story was difficult at first. Getting in touch with some of the only sources that could provide me with valuable information was challenging. It took some legwork, but I successfully got what I needed to develop this story and make it meaningful and though-provoking. The story begins in the 20th century during the Jim Crow era. In the 1940’s, Santa Monica was a growing city. With a population in the 1930s of 37,146 to a population of about 93,000 in 2020, today Santa Monica is a community with a mostly white population and small Hispanic, Asian, and African American populations, which is out of character when compared to other parts of the Los Angeles region that contain mostly people of color.

African Americans in West LA tried to form their own communities, such as Bay Street Beach. The Santa Monica City Council had a history of passing ordinances that prevented African Americans in Bay Street Beach from thriving and the community from reaching its full potential. This beach was chosen by African Americans as a place of recreation and leisure where they felt safe from anti-black harassment.

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 (An African American newspaper in Los Angeles until the 1950s) proclaimed that an Emancipation Celebration would feature live music and good company…"It sounded like it was jumping," stated historian Alison Rose Jefferson in an article from the LAist.

“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,” wrote Jefferson.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Jefferson myself. Having always been a great reader and interested in history, she had a few experiences with other historical projects as well as other careers before settling on a plan to pursue a PhD in history.

“In terms of becoming a historian, I was trying to figure [it] out after having done some other careers, said Jefferson. “I worked in finance for a mutual fund company where I did research and I enjoyed the research, but I didn't necessarily enjoy doing the numbers in terms of the quantitative stuff that you had to do to be an analyst or a portfolio manager. But I love the qualitative research,” said Jefferson.

She was pitching some paper topics to former state historian Kevin Starr, and his encouragement to write about African American leisure sites in California prompted Jefferson to pursue her PhD and eventually write her book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”

Bay Street was an easy place for African Americans to hang out due to the presence of a public park so that they weren’t on private property.

“The beach, since it was a public space, folks were able to maintain that space,” said Jefferson. “And because there's an African American community that was in Santa Monica, that helped because they were coming to the beach. It became the place where a lot of folks would have parties if they were coming out from Los Angeles and they would meet their friends there,” said Jefferson.

However, according to Jefferson, on Pico boulevard and the Ocean Front Walk, African Americans had tried to develop a resort on the north side of Pico. White folks in the area did not like that idea, even though everyone had a right to be there.

“So they got folks to sign a petition to say, we don't want the black people to have this resort here. And they took 500 folks to [a] city council meeting to say they didn't want it to happen,” said Jefferson. “The City Council in Santa Monica voted, okay, we will change the zoning so that they couldn't build a resort, but they could build a house if they wanted to.”

Later on, the city council changed the zoning laws again so that the white folks could build their own beach resorts.

“That was white supremacist economic and social sabotage of black people in their attempts to develop property and to have a broader swath of the California dream at the beach,” said Jefferson.

The fight to prevent African American communities from thriving escalated to a huge master plan put together by the city manager. It was a development to revive parts of Santa Monica. In short, it used the eminent domain to clear out some minority communities to build the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and the 10 freeway, according to the LAist article.

As for California’s Jim Crow era, the very few civil rights laws in place weren’t even being enforced, enabling plenty of discrimination and restrictive real estate covenants that prevented African Americans from buying property or from using some public and private accommodations, according to the Santa Monica Conservancy.

“White folks sometimes took it upon themselves to tell black people, you can't come here,” said Jefferson.

I also had a conversation with Carolyne Edwards, whose father moved to the Bay Street area in 1932 and met Edward’s mother. Though her father did experience unfair treatment in Bay Street, it was nothing compared to what he went through in Texas. Edwards told me about one incident in Bay Street, where her parents bought a house in the area. First of all, it was uncommon for people of color to purchase a house during that time, according to Edwards.

“My mother and father encountered a lot of racial slurs and name calling until after a while, the people just got tired of it and they either moved or they stopped,” said Edwards. But we stayed there a good 15, almost 20 years in that home. [But] my sisters, my brother and I, we didn't experience a lot of that. And if my father and my mother did, then they didn't pass it on to us.” Edwards currently resides in the San Fernando Valley with her husband.

When Bay Street Beach was established along with other leisure sites, white Americans had their own offensive terms for them, the most popular one being “Inkwell”: According to the Santa Monica Conservancy, history suggests that white Americans probably first used the controversial term “Inkwell” to describe more than one leisure site around the United States associated with African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

But there is little truth behind the claim that the term was thrown around everywhere by everyone. There is a theory from Edwards and the Quinn Research Center, a resource for accurate historical information about African Americans in the Westside. The research included interviews with previous residents of Bay Street, and the theory is that the term was prevalent in other parts of the country, particularly Boston, and as people moved out west, they brought the term with them. However, there was never a beach in Santa Monica that was literally called the “Inkwell”. Edwards parents were also able to confirm this from their time in Bay Street Beach.

“People who grew up in Santa Monica, who lived in Santa Monica during the 30s and the 40s, and they said that term never existed in Santa Monica,” said Edwards. “That beach was never called the Inkwell. People just referred to it as the beach.”

This goes to show how important it is to do proper research about a historical community that isn’t well known.

“There was nobody who was really advocating for African American history being displayed properly because nobody had done any research,” said Jefferson. “[The city] didn't want to do any more research on it. They're like, let's give the black people something.”

But that mostly meant recognizing Nick Gabaldón, the first Black surfer. According to Jefferson, he was like a manifestation of the spirit that African Americans had while using that beach. He represented them, chasing after the fulfillment of achieving the California dream and living a life integrated in beach and surf culture.

“We have to recognize the whole community. We can't just recognize him,” said Jefferson.

But there’s so much more to the story besides what some white folks used to call it. “Inkwell” isn’t the most important part of the history of Bay Street Beach. It’s important to recognize what white people may have referred to the area as since the goal was to disparage African Americans, but it doesn’t define the place and it’s past as a whole.

According to Edwards and Quinn Research, a lot of the general historical representation of Bay Street Beach isn’t appropriate. Almost anything historical in the area illuminates the history of the area in a degrading light. The goal is to portray Bay Street Beach in a historical, and non-degrading manner that is well researched beforehand so that people can know and understand what that place used to be all about. Critical historiography means to write history with wariness to represent a community with respect while exhibiting the place’s original experience. That is what is needed the most because it’s obvious that people cruising around in Santa Monica have no idea what Bay Street was.

“We are not happy with a lot of the signage (such as the plaque mentioned earlier) that's there at the beach area. We are in the process of trying to have that not removed, but to have it so that it's not a degrading kind of terminology,” said Edwards. “I'm [also] thinking in terms of a historical pictograph and photos of the Bay Street Beach on the public restrooms there, which is to me, it's very degrading. I think that there are more appropriate places on the beach where people would gather for wonderful events, family events, to put that type of signage there,” said Edwards.

Since 2019, Bay Street Beach Historic District has been on the National Register of Historic Places in Santa Monica, thanks to Edward’s and Jefferson’s hard work.


Sources:


1. “Bay Street Beach Historic District.” Santa Monica Conservancy, https://www.smconservancy.org/property/baystreetbeach/.


2. Bobo, Lawrence D. "Somewhere between Jim Crow & post-racialism: Reflections on the racial divide in America today." Daedalus 140.2 (2011): 11-36.


3. DeGraaf, Lawrence B. “The City of Black Angels….1890-1930.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3 (August 1970): 323-352.


4. Dillon, and Poston . “The Racist History of America's Interstate Highway Boom.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 11 Nov. 2021, https://www.latimes.com/homeless-housing/story/2021-11-11/the-racist-history-of-americas-interstate-highway-boom?_amp=true.


5. Edwards, Carolyne. Personal Interview. April 2022.


6. Flamming, Douglas. Bound For Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.


7. Hadley Meares, et al. “A Look Back at California's Long-Lost Black Beaches and Vacation Spots.” Los Angeles Magazine, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/african-american-beaches-leisure-history/.


8. Jefferson, Alison Rose. Personal Interview, April 2022.


9. Jefferson, Alison Rose. Living the California Dream, African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era. University of Nebraska Press, 2020 (January).


10. Jefferson, Alison Rose. Lake Elsinore: A Southern California African American resort area during the Jim Crow era, 1920s–1960s, and the challenges of historic preservation commemoration. University of Southern California, 2007.


11. Meares, Hadley. “How Racism Ruined Black Santa Monica.” LAist, 18 Nov. 2021, https://laist.com/news/la-history/black-santa-monica-history-vintage-los-angeles.

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