When you think about U.S. race relations and the country’s history of social turmoil, your mind probably doesn’t rush to the shores of Santa Monica.
But the waves curling towards the sand at the beach near Bay Street carry with them the story of Nick Gabaldon, whose experiences as an African-American surfer live on as a reminder of a past filled with segregation, discrimination and inequality.
On the annual Nick Gabaldon Day, which this year will be held June 4, surfing enthusiasts will join environmental activists and history buffs to commemorate the late surfer’s life and reflect on the issues he faced.
“He’s a way for many people to connect with the history of African-American beach culture in the region,” said historian Alison Rose Jefferson, a co-coordinator of the annual event. “We, as Americans, need to have an understanding of all aspects of our heritage. It certainly makes life more interesting to know a little detail, and it helps people understand that we have a shared identity here in Southern California. This is an experience. It’s part of our American history.”
Organizers believe the event is a way to engage people in understanding the cultural landscape of the beach. Just as it’s important to keep alive the history of Gabaldon, Jefferson said, it’s also vital to preserve the beauty and health of the beach itself.
Cue the involvement of Heal the Bay, which infuses the event with perspective on conserving nature and heritage hand-in-hand.
“There are many ways you can appreciate the beach and the preservation of the beach and the enjoyment of the beach,” Jefferson said. “It’s about trying to offer people an educational experience along with having a discovery of these other aspects of the beach.”
The day will begin with a memorial paddle-out at 9 a.m., followed by free surf lessons from the Black Surfers Collective and the Surf Bus Foundation. Activities at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium will follow a 1 p.m. lunch. The event will also feature a history exhibit, a shoreline exploration led by Heal the Bay and a few film screenings.
One of the films is “White Wash,” which studies race and politics through the lens of surfing and Southern California’s beach culture. Narrated by Grammy Award-winning musician Ben Harper, the 78-minute documentary compiles interviews and historical footage as well as music by The Roots.
“It features African-American surfers and their experiences with surfing and also discusses Nick Gabaldon,” Jefferson said. “It showcases the historical African-American beachside in Santa Monica near Pico, sometimes called the Inkwell. That’s where he was said to have begun his experience with the ocean as a swimmer, beachgoer and surfer.”
Nick Gabaldon Day comes a few months after an educational program at Santa Monica High School, where some 600 students learned about the history of African-American surfers on local beaches as part of a freshman seminar project. The students heard from former California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan and Black Surfers Collective leader Greg Rachal.
“We used it as a vehicle to introduce them to issues about Nick Gabaldon during the Jim Crow era,” Jefferson said. “He’s the representative for all those faceless people who also used that beach. We discussed with them how that experience translates today into beach access.
“We spoke to the kids about how this event is something that could help them think about social action. We thought it would inspire them to think about their community.”