Fighting for Leisure: African Americans, Beaches, and Civil Rights in Early 20th Century L.A.

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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

“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.” 1

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.

Bruce's Beach

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

 

Trickling into Southern California

The popular image of L.A. as an urban/suburban “White Spot” emerged as much from city boosters and fictional writers as any reality. “Writers, antiquarians, and publicists under the influence of Charles Fletcher Lummis,” writes Mike Davis, “created a comprehensive fiction of Southern California as the promised land of millenarian Anglo-Saxon racial odyssey. They inserted a mediterraneanized idyll of New England life into the perfumed ruins of an innocent but inferior ‘Spanish’ culture.” Real estate types ran with this fictionalized accounting of mythic Los Angeles, and “White Spot,” though not entirely a misnomer, became a popular handle for the Southern California metropolis. 2

Yet, this image of California obscures a more complicated reality, in which the state absorbed not only native born white Midwestern and southerners, but also Asians, Mexicans, white ethnics and African Americans. In fact, argues California State Northridge University’s Josh Sides, the very desire to define the city’s “‘Anglo-Saxonness,’ … reflected the presence of non-white people in Los Angeles.” 3

By the 1930s, Eastside neighborhoods like Watts and Boyle Heights, benefitting from industrial expansion during the 1920s and 1930s, brimmed with diversity. In the workplace, residents found reasons to join forces. Cannery workers, aircraft laborers, longshoremen, and others all found ways to find mutual cause, thus jettisoning racial and ethic interests for a more class based solidarity. “We all got along very well,” noted tenor saxophonist William “Brother” Woodman Jr., whose family had migrated to Los Angeles from Mississippi. “There were whites, Mexicans, Orientals, Jewish people. That’s why, at that time, I didn’t really understand about prejudice,” he told interviewers years later. 4

Unfortunately, as demographics changed, so too did whites’ apprehensions regarding integration. While California took early legal steps to prevent legalized racism — in 1863 it eliminated restrictions that had prevented nonwhites from testifying in court; in 1893 it banned formal “de jure segregation” in schools and passed a state-wide anti-discrimination law — the growing numbers of minorities, particularly blacks in this case, caused no small amount of disquiet for Anglos. As a result, in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, lines of segregation might not have been legally formalized, but whites increasingly deployed zoning laws, private covenants, and physical harassment to police the mixing of races in specific contexts — beaches being perhaps one of the most prominent.

Yet in earlier decades, California’s black citizens claimed their own recreational spaces and demonstrated their own agency in resisting white attempts to formally impose segregation.

Caption reads: ''A group at the sign that reads 'Prohibited,' at the boundary between Ink Well Beach and the whites-only section of beach in Santa Monica'', ca. 1925. *This caption, which accompanied the donation of the photo, may be inaccurate. See note below, from historian Alison Rose Jefferson | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Caption reads: ”A group at the sign that reads ‘Prohibited,’ at the boundary between Ink Well Beach and the whites-only section of beach in Santa Monica”, ca. 1925. *This caption, which accompanied the donation of the photo, may be inaccurate. See note below, from historian Alison Rose Jefferson | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Bruce’s Beach

In 1912 Manhattan Beach incorporated, and its 600 residents settled into their relatively unpopulated seaside community, while businessmen like Gregory Peck looked to capitalize on the new city’s stock of undeveloped land. Peck, at least according to the account provided by L.A. Times journalist Cecilia Rassmusen, sounds like a character straight out of a nineteenth century novel: an ambitious real estate developer who operated out of a tent and was known to toss fists full of coins to children during his walks along on the city’s boardwalk. By these same accounts, when the city incorporated in 1912, Peck allegedly “set aside” two blocks of ocean front land between 26th and 27th Streets for non-white residents. Yet, some experts call this narrative little more than revisionist history. “Peck did not stop the sale of the land [to the Bruces] because he probably wasn’t selling it as fast as he would have liked,” notes Alison Rose Jefferson, public historian, preservation consultant and UCSB Ph.D candidate. “He wanted whites, but he got a black woman.” According to Rose, who has researched the subject extensively, no evidence exists that Peck ever set aside any land for minorities. If anything, the sale of land to the Bruces was about what Peck did not do, namely prevent the transaction, which had been arranged by a separate real estate agent.

Whatever Peck’s motivations, Willa Bruce and her husband’s reasons were clear: to create a space for African Americans to enjoy “Southern California’s good life,” namely its beaches, the outdoor sports they facilitated, and the hotels, cafes, and commercial amusements that abutted them. In doing so the Bruces established the region’s first resort for African Americans. Black Californians drove or took advantage of the region’s then network of train lines. “You would take the Red Car down … and spend a day on the beautiful beach or rent a room if you desired,” recalled Los Angeles’ first black librarian Miriam Matthews. Sundays were reserved for school gatherings and families, and the resort offered more than simple respite overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “If one tired of the sand and surf, the parlor was available for listening to music or dancing,” Matthews recounted. 5

Still, Manhattan Beach never developed an established black community like the small but growing enclaves in and around Santa Monica. Small pockets of African Americans settled in Venice, Santa Monica, and the then Ocean Park District, later absorbed by Santa Monica proper in 1907, forming a constellation of small black neighborhoods orbiting the California beach front.

Caption reads: ''Women in bathing suits stack on top of each other in the back of a truck on a hayride to Manhattan Beach (Bruce's Beach). Top to bottom, Susie Thorton, Grace Williams, Mary Mingleton, Grace Harris,'' ca. 1925 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Caption reads: ”Women in bathing suits stack on top of each other in the back of a truck on a hayride to Manhattan Beach (Bruce’s Beach). Top to bottom, Susie Thorton, Grace Williams, Mary Mingleton, Grace Harris,” ca. 1925 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

 

The Inkwell

Having first arrived in small numbers in the late 1800s, Santa Monica’s black community congregated around the Phillips Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), established in 1905 and located at Fourth and Bay Street. As the local black population grew in the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica and south of Ocean Park in Venice, other churches emerged, such as the Calvary Baptist Church in 1920. After praying, many were eager to enjoy the very nature created by the Almighty. “Many a sepia toned visitor may have stopped at Phillips Chapel for religious fellowship in the morning before heading for the sun, sand, and surf in the afternoon,” speculated Jefferson in a 2009 article. 6 Unsurprisingly, not far from the Phillips CME church, near the foot of Pico Boulevard, African American residents claimed one piece of the larger California dream — the beach sometimes referred to as “the Inkwell.” 7

The establishment of the Inkwell coincided with the city’s own ascendency in matters of the sun. In the late 1800s Santa Monica emerged as a popular destination for L.A. residents hoping to picnic or sunbathe along the beach. By the 1880s, wealthy easterners, metropolitan civic and business leaders, and movie stars, slept in the city’s wealthy north side hotels like the Santa Monica (1875), the Arcadia (1887), and the North Beach Bathhouse (1893), while also enjoying the burgeoning promenade developing from Ocean Park down to Venice.

African Americans had established their foothold on the beach at the Inkwell, and now members of the community sought to add more. Black Angelenos and visitors put their feet up, rented a suit, or grabbed a bite to eat at the black-owned La Bonita Bathhouse or Thurman’s Rest A While Apartments. The Dew Drop Inn and Café also served black beach goers, as did the Arkansas Traveller Inn which, according to the California Eagle, featured “southern style barbecue with genuine barbeque sauce and fried chicken.”

By the late teens and 1920s, Santa Monica’s black residents had established small businesses, like the aforementioned Dew Drop Inn and Café and civic organizations like a branch of the NAACP. By the 1920s, a group of black investors, including Charles S. Darden, distinguished lawyer and the first African American to argue a case before the California Supreme Court, organized the Ocean Frontage Investment group in an effort to build a Santa Monica resort that would include a bath house, dance hall, and other commercial amusements. Unfortunately, Santa Monica officials would use zoning laws to deny them beach front property quickly, changing such regulations once whites bought the land and made similar proposals. 9

Caption reads: ''L to R: Grace Williams, Albert Williams, Mary Mingleton, Willie Williams (no relation) in the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well,'' ca. 1926 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Caption reads: ”L to R: Grace Williams, Albert Williams, Mary Mingleton, Willie Williams (no relation) in the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well,” ca. 1926 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Racism of the Roaring ’20s

From 1900-1920, blacks in Los Angeles took advantage of every economic opportunity within their proverbial grasp, and it showed. By 1910, nearly 40 percent of African Americans owned their home in Los Angeles County, far outpacing northern centers like Chicago (8 percent) and New York (2.4 percent). In 1900, 2,131 African Americans resided in Los Angeles; by 1920 this figure had grown to 15,579; and by 1930 it reached almost 40,000. Santa Monica bulged demographically as well, counting over 15,000 residents by the 1920s, its black population grew also, from 191 individuals in 1910 to 282 by 1920. It would be in this same period that whites became increasingly concerned about enforcing SoCal’s unofficial segregation, especially on its beaches.

In 1900, just over 100,000 people resided in Los Angeles; within twenty years over 500,000, and by the 1940s, over 1.5 million. Though significant numbers of minorities migrated to SoCal, whites especially proliferated. With housing and land becoming more and more scarce — and hence, valuable — counties and municipalities made greater efforts to enforce segregation. Many white officials and civic leaders argued that beaches, being region’s most visible and viable tourist and recreational asset, must remain under white ownership; non-white ownership of ocean and beach front property, these leaders asserted, threatened to drive away white tourists. Towns, counties, and municipalities, through public authorities, began buying up properties and imposing segregation. As a result, blacks suffered two fold: denied access, through ordinance or custom, to the region’s most popular form of recreation, and paying taxes that facilitated public purchase and segregation of beach front property.

While many other minority groups struggled with similar issues, systematized racism affected the leisure pursuits of blacks more often and with greater force. 10 This sort of hierarchy of racism would later be extended in to housing after WWII, as Asian, Latino, and Jewish Americans, though still facing significant discrimination, found passage into the suburbs of San Fernando Valley and elsewhere more easily than their African American peers.

Regrettably, local chapters of the Klu Klux Klan also entered the picture in the 1920s. At both Bruce’s Beach and the Inkwell, KKK members used verbal and physical violence — occasional beatings, arson, burned crosses, slashed car tires, and various other extralegal forms of intimidation — to drive away beach goers. 11 In her own research, Jefferson has discovered in local newspapers of the period “open advertising” for KKK meetings some even promising an appearance by the grand wizard.

Black beachgoers boldly ignored or, more accurately, bravely faced such threats, and even embraced some of the derogatory terms thrown at their community. Though the term “Inkwell” was not unique to L.A. — whites elsewhere also used the term pejoratively to describe other black beaches in the U.S. — some black Angelenos transformed the “hateful moniker” into a “badge of pride or belonging.” With that said, others rejected the title, seeing in it the embedded racism of the period.

Verna with the child of a friend, Irma, at the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well, 1931 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Verna with the child of a friend, Irma, at the segregated section of Santa Monica beach known as the Ink Well, 1931 | Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

 

Whatever the community’s acceptance of the name, the Inkwell proved a magnet for black Los Angeles, even in this period of racial retrenchment. Luminaries like Ralph Bunche spent days on the beach in the 1920s. When a series of new bathhouses — including the Casa Del Mar and the Edgewater Club — were constructed in the 1920s barring blacks from membership, Inkwell patrons refused to fully vacate their beach, remaining steadfast in their position just yards away from the racially and economically exclusive clubs. The beach persisted well past mid-century as a site for social club gatherings, family picnics, and church group activities. Ivan J. Houston, Wallace Decuir, and others formed the Cosmos Club in 1946, a social group for business people and civic affairs, utilizing the beach for outings. 12

Unfortunately, not everyone triumphed. During this period, Bruce’s Beach met its demise at the hands of the Manhattan Beach city council, which deployed eminent domain to dispossess black property owners of their homes in the mid 1920s. Though it took years of litigation, the court eventually awarded the Bruces $14,500 in compensation. The city promised a new park in place of the former resort, but nothing came into existence until decades later. Longtime Manhattan Beach resident Bingham recalls looking upon this emptiness in his youth during the 1940s and 1950s, as the lots remained “pockmarked with weeds and empty Coca-Cola bottles.” 13 Even in this case however, black Angelenos protested the city’s attempt at overt exclusion. When in 1927 the city tried to formally segregate the space, the NAACP held a wade in protest and forced the city to revoke any sort of overt racial separation, though the lot remained barren and largely unused for decades.

Remembering it All

While Santa Monica’s commemoration of Phillips Chapel (2005) and the Inkwell (2008) went fairly smoothly, Manhattan Beach residents displayed visible reticence towards Bruce’s Beach. During the 2006 debates ratifying its commemoration, 53 homeowners petitioned against it, and even after approval city councilmember Jim Aldiger downplayed any formal ceremony, calling one “unnecessary” and telling the L.A. Times “I don’t know who we would invite to it.”

Yet, Bruce’s Beach and the Inkwell are critical pieces of SoCal history. In a nation moving toward majority minority status, and in a region long defined by it, unpacking the long intertwined and complex histories of African, Asian, and Latino Americans, to say nothing of the LGBT community or religious minorities who have also contributed to our national history, is not just an action to bandage bruised racial consciences. Places like the Inkwell and like Phillips Chapel demonstrate agency in the face of discrimination, community amid migration, entrepreneurialism in the toughest of conditions, and the developing culture of one of the world’s newest and most diverse nations. German philosopher Jurgen Habermas once wrote, “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner self.”

If Bruce’s Beach and the Inkwell tell us anything, they tell us about the hopes and dreams of black Angelenos, the struggles they endured to realize them, and the means by which Southern California served as a setting for this history, a history that, Jefferson rightly asserts, needs to be framed in terms of action and not victimization. Believe it or not, fighting for leisure means something, and for Southern California’s African American community it meant everything.

*Note from historian Alison Rose Jefferson, regarding ‘Prohibited’ photo:

Although this is what the caption reads, we Los Angeles historians have been having an ongoing dialog about the accuracy of the caption quote that accompanied the donation of the photograph. There were not signs at Santa Monica beach designating segregation of the races. The people are siting on break water rocks. We have to remember the area shoreline geography was much different the first few decades of the twentieth century. The sign most likely read, “Fishing Prohibited” or “Walking Prohibited.” If there had been a sign like that out there on the beach, all indications are African Americans would have been protesting to have it taken down [...] The person who donated the photograph in the 1990s let their emotions about the past get in the way of the facts.

_____

1 Deborah Schoch, “Erasing a line in the sand,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007.
2 Mike Davis, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles,” (New York: Verso, 1990), 20.
3 Josh Sides, Los Angeles City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 14.
4 Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 26, 31, 32.
5 Deborah Schoch, “Erasing a line in the sand,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007.
6 Alison Rose Jefferson, “African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica: The Beach Sometimes Known as the ‘Inkwell,’” Southern California Quarterly 91 (Summer 2009): 172.
7 Alison Rose Jefferson, “African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica: The Beach Sometimes Known as the ‘Inkwell,’” Southern California Quarterly 91 (Summer 2009): 155-189.
8 Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits, 14-15.
9 Alison Rose Jefferson, “African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica,” 176.
10 Alison Rose Jefferson, “African American Leisure Space in Santa Monica,” 181.
11 Kenneth Jackson, The Klu Klux Klan in the City, 1915 – 1930, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
12 Ibid, 183.
13 Deborah Schoch, “Erasing a line in the sand,” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections Column.

Comments

  1. thanks ryan. really fascinating. Glad to have found this blog … lots to explore. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now)..

  2. Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Ryan Reft at the Tropics of Meta explores the racial diversity of Los Angeles and African Americans presence at Inkwell and Bruce’s Beach in Los Angeles at their inception. The history of Bruce’s Beach and Inkwell provide a window on Los Angeles’ racial diversity in the early 20th century. Reft’s article explores both triumphs and setbacks African Americans experienced while using public beaches in LA.

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