Juneteeth and The Inkwell

Black AF, Silver Rights

Santa Monica Beach–-with its world-famous pier–is one of the most popular beaches in Southern California. At night, it’s a hot spot, with great restaurants and great clubs. It is a hodgepodge of activities for everyone who wants to go; rollerblading, surfing–it has all the fun of Venice Beach without the craziness, all the ambiance of Redondo Beach without the upscale attitude (even though Santa Monica homes have a median that’s 200 thousand higher than Redondo).

And in the 20th Century, it was once one of the only spots in Southern California for Black folks to go to the beach without getting harassed by the whites that wanted to restrict their movements, their leisure, their social enjoyment, and their economic empowerment.

If you were Black, and you lived in Southern California during the 20th Century, you had to learn how to navigate the area. Sundown towns were abundant. You couldn’t just go to the beach wherever you wanted.

You might have tried to go to Peck’s Pier in Manhattan Beach first. That’s where Black folks could go in Manhattan Beach for a good time. However, the white citizens didn’t like us out there very much. Peck’s was destroyed mysteriously before the Twenties could even really get going.

Well then, after that you could go to the Pacific Beach Club in Orange County. Trying to dodge the white supremacitsts in LA, prominent Black folks attempted to build a Black resort just outside of Huntington Beach, which was a nice little ride away down the road on the Pacific Railway train system. Sadly, the Pacific Beach Club was also mysteriously burned down in 1926. There were several folks who moved to Orange County from the South, after all; and they weren’t too crazy about a Black beach in their neck of the woods.

Then came Bruce’s Beach, just down the street from Peck’s, where Charles and Willa Bruce purchased three lots and created a place where Black people could enjoy the beach–until the city stepped in and stripped it from the family under the guise of eminent domain in 1927. Manhattan Beach gained a reputation as a Sundown Town, afterward. The lots that the Bruces owned sat empty for decades until they made a park to prevent being sued. In 2021, the California State Legislature agreed to return the property to the Bruce family–but it probably won’t be a Black beach again.

And that’s where Bay Street Beach in Santa Monica comes in.

From around the turn of the century until into the sixties, the 66-yard stretch of beach at Bay Street was derisively known as “The Inkwell” to the white Santa Monica residents. But this was the area where Black folk could go to get some vitamin D in their lives and enjoy the sounds of the surf, without getting overly harassed by the whites. Bay Street had a nice-sized population of Black folks, and these people–and a bunch of Blacks from other areas who enjoyed the beach–would show up between Bay and Bicknell, right at the foot of Pico Boulevard, for their own little slice of the SoCal beach experience.

Don’t think it was all good all the time, though. White people were constantly annoyed at the presence of these uppity folks who had the never to think that they deserved to be at the beach. LIke their counterparts to the south, they did their best to limit–if not destroy–The Inkwell. The Santa Monica Protective League–of course, the name of a conglomerate of businesses run by white supremacists determined to keep the beach city as lily-white as possible–tried to block a Black development group from building a resort near Pico. The attacks on Black folks in the area escalated from being economic to physical, with angry whites attacking the beachgoers for being beachgoers; until the NAACP stepped in.

After challenging racism down the coast at Manhattan Beach in the late 1920’s (although Bruce’s Beach has still not been completely restored to the family and no Black beach resorts currently exist in Southern California), the California court system decided to uphold the laws that gave Black folks the right to use any California beach. However, despite the ease with which anyone could allegedly go anywhere else, The Inkwell remained an extremely popular spot for Black people who wanted to go to the beach until later in the century.

The construction of the 10 Freeway devastated several Black communities in the Los Angeles area, including the Black community that frequented Santa Monica. When the Black population left, so did the fun of The Inkwell.

By the time I grew up in the seventies and eighties, it was made abundantly clear to those of us who lived in Southern California that some beaches were ok to go to, and some were not.

Many of us heard the sundown town tales or the “be careful around the police out there stories of Long Beach, Signal Hill, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Torrance, the Beach cities of Hermosa, Redondo, and Manhattan, El Segundo, and yes, Santa Monica. We resigned ourselves to Dockweiler Beach, in the City of Los Angeles. By the time we got to the nineties, we could pretty much go everywhere to a degree. We no longer needed an Inkwell; indeed, I had never heard of the place until the Bruce’s Beach saga escalated.

Today, you would never know that there used to be a thriving Black community in Santa Monica. Less than 4% of the population is Black, after all. You would never know that it used to be the place in SoCal to catch your rays and see the surf. However, there is a monument to the Inkwell that can be seen in the city today near Bay Street and Oceanfront–a reminder of a time that Black people made the best of what was available to us at the time, and made it every bit as wonderful as we do with everything else.

The monument reads, “A Place of Celebration and Pain.” That’s the spirit of Juneteenth, and that spirit was the driving part of The Inkwell–and still is, to this day. When we celebrate Juneteenth, we celebrate the ending of the pain of slavery. Yes, decades afterward, we still endured the separation that caused us to need places like The Inkwell, but that is why we reflect and remember–and, possibly, strategize for the future. For example, rebuilding these safe places and enclaves, today, with more wealth and more protection, is not a bad idea at all.

Let us make sure that Juneteenth is a day that we acknowledge these places like The Inkwell–what they meant at the time, what they mean today, and what they mean for our future as Black people.

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