The Belmar History + Art Project revives public memory of Santa Monica’s lost African-American neighborhood
By Stephanie Bell
For one afternoon, Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center transformed into the dining room of an African-American grandmother from the South. A long communal table dressed with leafy green plants and floral-pattern china plates framed several pitchers of ice-cold sweet tea, a conversation starter and connector for 20 diners who came to discuss the preservation of local black history.
“Tea is the medium to start a conversation. Through different tea rituals, people extend their hospitality,” said event host April Banks, an artist commissioned by Santa Monica Cultural Affairs to lead a community engagement process and develop artwork, interpretive signage and a community education plan commemorating the lost Santa Monica neighborhood known as Belmar.
While many look to South Los Angeles for the history of African-American communities in Southern California, Belmar — before it was demolished to make way for the Santa Monica Civic Center campus in the 1950s — was home to a thriving community of black homes, businesses and beach culture.
Through historic research and community events such as the Feb. 16 “Tea Afar RE/Cite Community Talk” and Saturday’s Greens Festival at Virginia Avenue Park, the Belmar History + Art Project aims to restore the neighborhood to its rightful place in public memory.
“Santa Monica has the oldest consistent African-American community in the region,” said Belmar History + Art project historian Alison Rose Jefferson, “and a lot of people that live here don’t realize it. This history of African Americans is American history and it should be documented everywhere. It’s important everywhere. This is just one more story that has been overlooked in terms of the narrative talking about the history of this place. I’m trying to illuminate it through my work.”
Banks, who is still in the research stage for artwork that’s like to be placed near the Civic Multipurpose Sports Field, listened closely to family histories shared over portions of greens and peach cobbler.
“I didn’t know about the Belmar community before this project” said Banks. “The purpose is to build empathy and community through storytelling. … There’s this idea that there are very few African-Americans or no African-Americans here, and there is no understanding of the contributions to the early developments of Santa Monica.”
The tea focused on family legacies, traditions and stories of migration to Santa Monica from as far away as the West Indies.
Bill Edwards moved west from Texas in 1956 in search of work.
“When I heard about California they said money was growing on trees,” recalled Edwards, whose wife Carolyne was born a short distance from the 18th Street Arts Center. In the 1930s her maternal grandfather was a minister at the First African Methodist Church at 19th Street and Michigan Avenue, where she still attends services.
“My father migrated here during The Great Migration. He came here just because he had heard it was such a wonderful place. So he went back to Texas, packed up everything and bought property in Santa Monica. We’ve been here ever since,” Carolyne Edwards said.
June Small was born in Barbados and migrated to New York with her mother in the early 1950s and has been researching her family lineage.
“I’ve traced back to my grandfather and saw a picture of him for the first time from his registration at the Panama Canal,” she said. “I’m trying to go further, but I’m stuck by a slave named Nacy Lane. I couldn’t find anything beyond that, but I’m still digging.”
Lucy Padilla, who is involved in local nonprofits, said she values engaging with other people’s stories.
“Los Angeles is very diverse, and hearing these stories about where people are from and listening to their different backgrounds helps you to understand not just Los Angeles but everywhere.”
Santa Monica resident Fran Lyness appreciated being immersed into another culture through food.
“It makes us feel like family,” she said.
The upcoming Greens Festival aims to celebrate black history with cooking demonstrations, live music, book readings,
a pop-up museum and activity booths.
The Belmar History + Art project is hosting a dance workshop from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. led by choreographer d. Sabela grimes.
For that event, “we’re looking at migration and movement through another art form. We’re looking at it through the body as an archive and how we hold trauma and celebration in our body,” said Banks.
“We have to keep telling our stories because they’re so under-told, hidden and erased,” she said.
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The Greens Festival happens from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, at Virginia Avenue Park, 2200 Virginia Ave., Santa Monica. The event is free to attend. Call (310) 458-8688 or visit sm.gov/vapark for more information.