When surf and sand was practically segregated, the Inkwell was both a slur and a badge of pride for African Americans

By Alison Rose Jefferson

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection contains several historic images of people enjoying the Inkwell / Bay Street beach in the  1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. (Images courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.)

The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection contains several historic images of people enjoying the Inkwell / Bay Street beach in the
1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. (Images courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.)

During the 1900s-60s Jim Crow Era of racial restrictions, the Pacific shoreline directly south of Pico Boulevard in today’s Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica was a place where African Americans could enjoy sun, sand and surf without facing the racially motivated harassment endemic to other Southland beaches.

The Anglo community denigrated the site by calling it the “Inkwell,” a reference to the skin color of beachgoers. But the very people whom that slur was intended to malign adopted it as a badge of pride.

While physical traces of the Inkwell are largely gone (the city installed a monument in 2008), its role as a social destination for the Westside’s early African-American community is a story of shared history and identity that’s often overlooked.

“It was a summer weekend gathering place. You would see everyone … all your friends there,” said octogenarian Ivan J. Houston, a third-generation Angeleno whose father encountered race-based opposition while trying to build a black beach resort in the 1920s.

African Americans who came to California to escape the segregated South challenged racial and class structures by confronting the emergent politics of leisure and recreation access that was at the core of the state’s formative mid-20th century identity.

“The development of attractive and accessible black beaches and resorts free from white harassment [was] a major political issue in the long civil rights movement,” writes historian Andrew Kahrl.

Many new black migrants to Santa Monica settled in the environs of the Civic Center, with the Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (the city’s first African-American church) as its spiritual and institutional center just up the hill at around Fourth and Bay streets. Santa Monica is the only seaside community in the region featuring a historical African-American community with an institutional space as old as Phillips Chapel, built in 1908 and made a city of Santa Monica landmark in 2005.

The late Navallette Tabor Bailey (1914–2010) spoke during a 2009 interview about fun times on the beach between Pico Boulevard and Bicknell Street while growing up a short distance south in Venice.

In Bailey’s circle, however, it was always referred to as “the Bay Street beach” — never “the Inkwell.”

As early as the 1890s, California had enacted laws to protect beach access for all residents, but sometimes those laws were ignored. Along many stretches of the California coastline, refusal to allow African Americans access to various places of leisure constituted an informal policy that was at times strictly, and other times inconsistently, enforced by many white citizens and policymakers.

Under the headline “Settlement of Negroes is Opposed: Santa Monica and Ocean Park Blocks Plan for Colony of Colored Folk,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1922 that homeowners and businessmen had formed the Santa Monica Bay Protective League (supported by public officials) with the intent to purge African Americans from the city’s shoreline.

The immediate goal was to block a black investment group led by Norman O. Houston (Ivan Houston’s father) and attorney Charles S. Darden from developing a self-described “first-class resort with beach access” at the base of Pico, where Shutters on the Beach is located today.

After black investors were forced to abandon the plan, the property reverted to white ownership. Soon  extravagant and exclusive clubs with fenced in beaches began going up in the area, including the lavish Casa del Mar Club in 1924.

Meanwhile, local African-American leaders reflected the ambivalence of the general black population on the continued existence of the Inkwell. They wanted to end efforts to inhibit their freedom to use any and all public beaches, but the Inkwell was a secure point of access to the Pacific.

Next door to their gathering place, African Americans availed themselves to opportunities the white beach club presented. They enjoyed the music played by bands floating in the air from the facility, and utilized its floodlight system for nighttime socializing at the beach. African-American visitors refused to be pushed away from the oceanfront space they enjoyed for many years, before the incursion of their new, rich, white neighbors.

In 1927 the L.A. branch of the NAACP organized their first civil disobedience effort and a legal challenge to these discriminatory practices in a case against the city of Manhattan Beach. Their actions resulted in the California Courts upholding the laxly enforced laws put in place from 1893 to 1923 that allowed African Americans the rights to use any beach in the state. With African Americans more confident in asserting their legal rights, racial restrictions at public beaches began to fade away.

Artist Richard Wyatt was commissioned by the Black Surfing Association’s Rick Blocker to paint this portrait of Nick Gabaldón,  a composite drawn from the few known photographs of Gabaldón. (Image courtesy of Wyatt and Blocker.)

Artist Richard Wyatt was commissioned by the Black Surfing Association’s Rick Blocker to paint this portrait of Nick Gabaldón,
a composite drawn from the few known photographs of Gabaldón. (Image courtesy of Wyatt and Blocker.)

Today’s Ocean Park beach front includes Crescent Bay Park, the “California Wash” art installation and the city plaque recognizing the historical significance of the Inkwell / Bay Street beach site and the city’s early African-American community — including one of the earliest documented surfers of African- and Mexican-American descent, Nick Gabaldón (1927-1951).

One of a handful of African-American graduates in Santa Monica High School’s Class of 1945, Gabaldón served in the Navy in 1945 and 1946 before returning home to attend Santa Monica College and work as a U.S. Postal Service Letter Carrier.

Gabaldón began surfing as a teen at Inkwell / Bay Street beach, teaching himself to do so on a 13-foot rescue board that belonged to a white lifeguard.

Gabaldón’s story ended tragically with a fatal surfing accident at the Malibu Pier when he was just 24, but during his short life he earned respect from fellow surfing pioneers that transcended the racial prejudice of the times.

On Saturday, Santa Monica celebrates Nick Gabaldón Day at the beach in Ocean Park near Bay Street. Sponsored by the Black Surfers Collective and other groups, the day includes free surf lessons and a paddle-out in honor of Gabaldón.

Nick Gabaldón Day happens from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the beach near Bay Street. For more information or to sign up for surf lessons, visit  blacksurferscollective.org.

Alison Rose Jefferson is completing a doctorate in history at UC Santa Barbara.

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