Historian and tour guide Robbie Jones keeps Santa Monica’s Black history alive
Santa Monica is only about 8 square miles, but throughout the city are deep roots of Black and African American history that have helped it develop into what it is today.
Local historian and tour guide Robbie Jones gave her first Santa Monica Black history tour to her family while they were in town for a reunion. She took them to 28 different stops around town including a section of the beach in Santa Monica that used to be known as the Inkwell, a popular gathering place for Black people in the early 20th century.
After the tour, friends and family asked Jones if she would give tours for them as well. As she was talking with her grandmother and elders, Jones realized how much Black history was rooted throughout Santa Monica and how many of its residents shared interconnected histories.
“I just include everybody’s story, it depends on who’s on the bus and who wants to take the tour, but I try and gear it toward whatever that interest is,” Jones said. “We have a lot of athletes that grew up here, professional NFL players, musicians and opera singers. We have some of the best of the best who grew up in Santa Monica that are also African American. So I kind of tell those stories as I go on, as I remember them.”
Jones was born and raised in Santa Monica, where she lived with her grandmother. When she was growing up, Jones recalled the town was full of warmth and friendly neighbors where the front door was always open.
“A lot of African American history isn’t documented, it’s mostly told in stories,” Jones said.
As Jones was collecting those stories, she realized that when she officially launched her touring business, Black Santa Monica Tours and Concierge, in 2004, she wanted to focus on the African American history of Santa Monica as a way to document and continue telling the stories of the town.
She calls Santa Monica a “little big city” because of how much there is in town. As she got older, Jones started her activism for her community and for Black people.
It started in the 1980s when Jones noticed that the PTA at her kids’ school wasn’t reaching out to the African American population, which led her to start an African American parent group to create a safe space for everyone so Black kids could feel heard and connected to their campus.
In 1998, Jones felt that African American youth weren’t being given enough attention from the city, so she created a boys mentorship program where businessmen, professionals and mentors could connect with young boys and inspire them.
All of Jones’ activism work comes from wanting everyone, especially Black people, to feel special and included in their community.
“We’re all in this together, I just want to help those who have been treated poorly,” Jones said. “Some people ask, ‘Why do Black lives matter only?’ Well, it’s not that, it’s just that they have been the ones who have been singled out, ignored, discriminated against and ostracized in America.”
Jones is also the cofounder of the City Council Black Agenda, an initiative and conversation starter that takes place between city officials and the Black community on how to be better allies. Through subcommittees on topics like housing and education, the Black Agenda will keep the conversation going about improving life in Santa Monica for Black people and minorities.
“Our city manager and staff understood that the conversation needed to take place with the Black community,” Jones said. “Things are happening in Santa Monica that I never thought would happen.”
Even through a tumultuous 2020, Jones isn’t done making a difference in her community. In the next few years, Jones plans to open a coffee shop across the street from Santa Monica College where customers can enjoy a cup of coffee or a meal while learning about the local history of Santa Monica that isn’t taught in books.
“That’s very important to see themselves not only nationally, but locally in the history books,” Jones said. “Why I’ve been here so long is because I felt that connection early on, and the kids who have been here for five or 10 years haven’t felt that connection yet. I remember the way I felt and the way people made me feel and made Santa Monica feel like home. I could’ve gone to many other places, but I love this little big city. I’m attached to it and I’d just like to see better things for Black folks here in Santa Monica.”
— Sara Edwards