Revisiting Santa Monica's Ink Well Beach

Yesterday, local history buffs and surfing enthusiasts gathered at Calvary Baptist Church in Santa Monica for a presentation on the history of the "Ink Well," a segregated beach in Santa Monica popular with African American Angelenos during the first half of the 20th century. Located at Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk, steps from the Casa Del Mar Hotel, the Ink Well served as the home base for pioneering African American surfer, Nick Gabaldon.

The Santa Monica Conservancy and Calvary Baptist Church co-hosted the "African Americans and the Beach" program to celebrate the dedication of a commemorative plaque to honor Nick's accomplishments and officially recognize the area's significance. The City of Santa Monica unveiled the plaque in early February after surfer Rhonda Harper asked the Santa Monica City Council to recognize the historical importance of the site in 2006.

On Sunday, historian Alison Rose Jefferson, who authored the text on the commemorative plaque, shared her research about the black community that had occupied the neighborhoods off Pico between 14th and 24th Streets since the early 1900s and the development of seaside resorts and entertainment venues catering to blacks prior to the civil rights era. Filmmaker Portia Scott Hicks displayed clips from her film, Soul On a Wave, documenting the story of Nick Gabaldon and other black surfers.

African American parishioners of Philips Chapel CME established the custom of heading down to the beach near 4th and Pico after services for picnics and recreational activities. After enduring several incidents of racial tension between black beach goers and the police in whites-only spots at beaches in Manhattan Beach and Huntington Beach, the black community found a way to congregate unmolested at a polluted, undesirable area, near an an abandoned swimming pool, that no one wanted at the time.

As racial segregation in L.A. increased, Ink Well Beach became one of the few places left for blacks to enjoy the shoreline. Blacks from all over the city gathered at the beach front between Bay Street and Bicknell Street. Until the late 20s, most black Angelenos relaxed at the region's first black beach resort in Manhattan Beach. Charles and Willa Bruce established an inn and dance halls on the beach in 1912 and that stretch of sand became known as "Bruce's Beach." Manhattan Beach politicians evicted the business and surrounding African American neighborhood, claiming the land for a public park via eminent domain. The spot remained vacant for 30 years. Last year, Manhattan Beach renamed Ocean Front Park Bruce's Beach Park in acknowledgment of the shameful incident.

It wasn't all blood, sweat and tears back then. Black Angelenos found ways to enjoy themselves, despite the indignities and hardships, and frequented black-owned bath houses and dance halls such as La Bonita Bath House and Cafe at Pico and Main. Ms. Jefferson illustrated her talk with informal snapshots of Afro Angelenos at play through the years. They looked so carefree in their old-fashioned swimsuits, squinting into the sun and laughing with their friends. Portia Scott Hicks shared lots of photos of Santa Monica resident, Nick Gabaldon, surfing and enjoying his friends on the beach. Nick taught himself to surf and was embraced by the surf legends riding the waves in Malibu. Tragically, Nick died in a surfing accident in Malibu in 1951.

I left the event with greater insight that I could apply to my own memories. Growing up, every summer my family joined another African American family at a Manhattan Beach house owned by their grandparents since the turn of the century. Aware of Manhattan Beach's segregated past, I could never figure out how my friends obtained the property. Thanks to Ms. Jefferson's research, I now surmise that our summer house may have been part of the Bruce's Beach neighborhood.

During the Q&A following the lecture, I learned that the term the "Ink Well" started as a pejorative name for areas in the US — like the famed Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs neighborhood on Martha's Vineyard — frequented by blacks that the black community adopted and transformed for their own purposes.

It's painful to listen to tales of injustice during the Jim Crow era, but I am grateful to learn more about our city's past. We've erased so much of our past selves from the Southern California landscape that historic markers like the Ink Well plaque are the only means for us to access memories that reveal how far we've come and remind us of how far we have to go.

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