L.A.'s Ugly Jim Crow History: When Beaches Were Segregated

Cristyne Lawson Split
Cristyne Lawson

A Santa Monica stretch called Inkwell was one place African-Americans could enjoy.

During Jim Crow — until about 1960 — L.A.'s beaches were segregated. "It was more by practice because California had civil rights laws from the 1890s that said public resources were open to all," says Alison Rose Jefferson, a third-generation Angeleno and UC Santa Barbara historian. Bruce's Beach, founded by Charles and Willa Bruce in 1912 on two blocks a Manhattan Beach deed had set aside for African-Americans to purchase, was SoCal's first black resort. By the early '20s, though, the Ku Klux Klan had incited residents and "through eminent domain took the land to make a park — but didn't build it for 60 years," says Jefferson.

In 1922, African-American investors bought land at the end of Pico Boulevard to develop into an amusement and resort facility, but 600 Santa Monica residents showed up to protest at the city council, which passed an ordinance barring anything bigger than a house on the property. (The city's black population was about 300, out of a total of 15,300.) Of course, says Jefferson, "a few years later they let white folks build all those beach clubs, including Casa del Mar and the Waverly Club, all before 1930." Shutters on the Beach now sits on that contested land; the private Jonathan Beach Club only began allowing women, Jews and African-American members in the late '80s.

After 1922, black beachgoers, including future Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, were pushed south of Pico to the beach between Bay and Bicknell Streets, close to the black community church Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Church, the first African American church in Santa Monica. Ivan Houston, 91, began going to Inkwell — as it was derogatorily designated — around 1928. “The area where we used to go was between Bay and Bicknell, and you know, it’s sort of interesting, that’s just where we went. As I heard if you went to some other part you were just not accepted there.” He remembers body-surfing in the waves with friends and crowded weekends with the sand — some years eroded to the boardwalk — covered in blankets and umbrellas. (The lifeguards were white.) The neighborhood sported outposts like the Blue Bird Cafe, where Houston got “really good hot dogs;” La Bonita bathhouse, where one could have meals, play tennis or have a party; Arkansas Tavern, a barbecue joint; and a few other nearby inns and restaurants listed in the Green Book, a guide to the establishments African Americans could safely patronize. Inkwell is also where Nick Gabaldon taught himself to surf during the '40s, making him California's first African-American/Latino surfer. (In 1951, Gabaldon died while shooting, or surfing between pilings of, the Malibu Pier. Each June, the Black Surfers Collective, in partnership with Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Conservancy, honors his death anniversary by introducing kids to the site’s history with recreational beach activities that have a stewardship focus.) 

Another option was Lake Elsinore, where talent traveled two hours outside of L.A. to swim unmolested. "Louis Armstrong went, and Hattie McDaniel and Leon Rene, who wrote 'Rockin' Robin,' had places," says Jefferson. "Much later on, when everything was integrated, we'd go up to Zuma Beach," says Houston. But even as racial tensions eased in the early '60s, he adds that blacks kept going to Inkwell because "you get into a habit of going someplace."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.