Black History Month, Part I: “Fighting for Leisure” in Los Angeles

Over the past five years, ToM has spent a great deal of time investigating issues of race. While we try to avoid the usual black-white binary of racial discourse in the United States, highlighting the lives and histories of Asian and Latino Americans, we’ve no doubt examined the histories of Black America with great interest. Over the course of February, aka Black History Month, we’re going to highlight some of our more notable pieces on the subject.

Just two weeks after a massive snow storm struck the eastern seaboard and with the east coast and midwest stuck in the heart of winter, we figure why not take a look at the intersection of civil rights and leisure with one of life’s warmest sites of relaxation and repose, the beach.

Caption reads: “Verna and Sidney in the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well.” | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Caption reads: “Verna and Sidney in the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well.” | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library


In his new work, This Land was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, Andrew Karhl examines the struggle for beach front property and civil rights “along the coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and their related estuaries,” as what he labels “coastal capitalism” imposed the commodification of land, exploitation of natural resources, and environmental engineering of the coast and bodies of water. “The shores that persons of color owned and frequented during the first half of the twentieth century highlight the pivotal role of landownership and development strategies in shaping and giving spatial definition to African Americans’ performance of class, pursuit of pleasure, and struggle for economic empowerment,” notes Karhl.  The story includes the panorama of black business and social life that sustained African American culture in this period, the “mom-and-pop restaurants, do-drop inns, nightclubs, and seaside amusements” that have been “washed away” by racially discriminatory redevelopment and property ownership in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Yet, today in places like Annapolis and Hampton Roads, VA, new efforts are underway to excavate and commemorate “the world African Americans made under segregation” so that they might be “woven into public history narratives, public policy debates over the persistence of racial inequality, and real estate redevelopment strategies….” Similar trends are developing in Southern California such as at Bruce’s Beach and the Inkwell in Santa Monica, both of which Black Angelenos once sought out for rest and relaxation. Local actors have begun to highlight this history through public memorials and scholars have attempted to tell these previously ignored histories. Admittedly, as Ryan Reft discusses in his piece for us, “Fighting for Leisure”, SoCal race relations differed from the more rigid structures of the Jim Crow South and Gulf Coast, but African Americans remained subject to segregation if by custom more than written law. Still, many parallels between the South/Sunbelt and SoCal exist from the struggles of African Americans to create their own social worlds in the face of racism to new efforts highlighting these sites and their meaning for modern audiences. In the end, it’s no exaggeration to say that African Americans in Los Angeles had to fight for their leisure. Below is a small excerpt from Reft’s piece with a link to the longer article below.

“Fighting for Leisure: African Americans, Beaches, and Civil Rights in early 20th Century Los Angeles”

“These people worked on the railroad, they saved their money, they put up a resort, and they lost everything,” lamented Bernard Bruce in 2007. “How would you feel if your family owned the Waldorf and they took it away from you.” Bruce, the grandson of former beach resort proprietors Charles and Willa Bruce, spoke to the Los Angeles Times after a contested Manhattan Beach city council vote of 3-2 confirmed the city’s official commemoration of his parents’ beach resort as a historic landmark. “There’s a kind of tension,” longtime resident and local historian Robert L. Brigham added, “between people who are very conscious of the history of Bruce’s and those who would rather forget about the whole thing.”

Plaque commemorating Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach | Photo: Pete Morris/Flickr/Creative Commons
Plaque commemorating Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach | Photo: Pete Morris/Flickr/Creative Commons

Indeed, the story of early twentieth century Southern California beaches remain bounded by the expansive dreams of African Americans and their desire to enjoy the fruits of a booming leisure industry, and the creeping racial fears and economic self interest of Anglos who sought to squash the commercial amusements and public presence of black Californians. Established in the early twentieth century, Bruce’s Beach and Santa Monica’s Inkwell served simultaneously as sites of leisure, agency, community, and controversy, and demonstrate not only the complex racial history of the Golden State but also current debates among public historians and preservationists regarding just what Americans should commemorate.

click here for more …. 

For Part II of Black History Month at ToM, Reclaiming Sporting Culture, click here

Part III of BHM at ToM, Race, Taxes, and Compton Schools, click here

Part IV of BHM at ToM: Compton as Bellwhether for Urban America, click here