On a recent surfing trip to the wild Pacific coastline of southern Mexico, I met a group of surfers who are so committed to their vision of community that it made me reevaluate my own notion of surfing as sport. For members of the Black Surfing Association, in whose company I was lucky enough to spend two mornings surfing a remote left point break, surfing is, in the words of BSA’s Rick Blocker, about, “teaching, mentoring.”
In between multiple surf sessions (it stayed offshore until 1p.m.) and watching BSA member Rusty White rip the head high perfect lefts, I chatted with Rick and Will Lamar about their passion and the history of black surfing in Southern California.
In the early ’60s, Blocker and friends Max McMullin and Marc Thompson began skating streets and banks all over west Los Angeles. Rick’s childhood “play cousin”, Marty Grimes, close friend of the Dogtown crew and perhaps the first black professional skateboarder, credits Rick with introducing him to the surf/skate lifestyle. A few years later, a friend of Rick’s mother took him surfing for the first time, at Malibu. Rick was instantly “stoked just being in the water, seeing the sights, seeing the perspective.” Rick began commuting by bus from inner city LA to Santa Monica, where he kept an old board in a “board locker” at the pier. In 1968, when he was 13, Rick saved up enough money ($150) to buy his first new stick, a Dewey Weber longboard.
Will was shooting video for a documentary and discussed how African Americans were a key part of the Southern California beach scene in the early part of the 20th century — but were physically barred from using the beach after the first black surfing resort, Bruce’s Beach, was destroyed. This history of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach is an ugly chapter in the often sordid history of Southern California, in which racism is a neglected theme in the often Disneyfied accounts of our past — especially as it relates to what some geographers call “Surfurbia.”
According to the City Project, from whose executive director, Robert Garcia, I had first heard about Bruce’s Beach:
When Manhattan Beach was incorporated in 1912, a two-block area on the ocean was set aside for African-Americans. Charles and Willa Bruce built a black beach resort there, the only resort in Southern California that allowed Blacks. Bruces’ Beach offered ocean breezes, bathhouses, outdoor sports, dining, and dancing to African-Americans who craved their fair share of Southern California’s good life. As coastal land became more valuable and the black population in Los Angeles increased — bringing more African-Americans to Bruces’ Beach — so did white opposition to the black beach. The black beach was roped off. The KKK harassed black beachgoers. The City of Manhattan Beach pressured black property owners to sell at prices below fair market value and prevailed in the 1920s through condemnation proceedings. Bruce’s Beach and the surrounding black neighborhood were destroyed. Black beachgoers were then relegated to the blacks-only section of Santa Monica beach known as “the Inkwell.” Manhattan Beach tried to lease the Bruce’s Beach land to a private individual as a whites-only beach, but relented in the face of civil disobedience organized by the NAACP. Bernard Bruce has spent his life telling people about Bruce’s Beach, the beach resort that his family owned. No one believed him because they did not believe black people owned beach resorts. This is why it is important to tell the story of Bruce’s Beach.
On March 31, 2007, the city of Manhattan Beach renamed its ocean front park Bruce’s Beach Park in memory of the pioneering African American community there. At least in Los Angeles, there is an awareness of how to redress the racist wrongs of the past. In San Diego, when it comes to the racist heritage of coastal exclusion (in such enclaves as La Jolla), we are in total denial.
The spirit of Bruce’s Beach lives on in the BSA and in surfers like Will and Rick, who are attempting to build a inclusive surfing community in Southern California rather than one that includes a select few.
— SERGE DEDINA