Photo Credit: Los Angeles Public Library

Surfers will gather this weekend to paddle out in support of Santa Monica’s historically black beach.

The Bay Street Beach Historic District became Santa Monica’s first district in the National Register of Historic Places last year and Black Girls Surf founder Rhonda Harper is organizaing the event in support of the area’s historic name, Inkwell Beach, after rumors reached some surfers that some people thought the name wasn’t appropriate.

Local historian Allison Rose Jefferson, Sea of Clouds’ Michael Blum, and Harper were a few of the driving forces who pushed city officials back in 2019 to honor the 55-acre site near the end of Pico Boulevard, which was once derogatorily known as “The Inkwell.”

During the Jim Crow era, Inkwell Beach was self-selected by African Americans as a place of recreation and leisure since they felt safe from racist, anti-black harassment. So, from the 1910s to the early 1960s, African-Americans were able to enjoy the beach relatively free from bigotry and take pleasure in the picturesque outdoor offerings of the state, Jefferson said as she detailed how discrimination and restrictive real estate covenants also prevented the Black community from buying property in certain areas.

Today, thousands of people will walk by the pier, which is only a short distance from Inkwell’s commemorative plaque, knowing very little about the impact that Nicolas Gabaldon and the other forgotten beachgoers had on the local area.

The Inkwell is certainly a place of celebration and pain, and that’s why the plaque plainly states that, Jefferson said. But it’s important for the community to recognize Inkwell because an understanding of the past is necessary to understand the events of today. “We look to the past to figure out how to make life better for us in the future, and understanding this history gives us a broader look at our society. We can ask why things are the way they are now — and at the same time celebrate how far we’ve come.”

This is especially true with all that’s going on in terms of contemporary times, Jefferson added. There has been a reinvigoration of the struggle for Black dignity and, so with that, this site is a place where people can come show solidarity with all the things that are going on.

After the death of George Floyd in late May, Harper organized a Black Girls Surf’s first international paddle-out at Inkwell Beach. Paddle-outs are a timeless tradition that are held to honor a fallen member of the community, Harper said in an interview this week. The George Floyd paddle-out was significant because it continued the fight for equality decades after African-Americans had first struggled to find a home on the Westside. It also drew hundreds of attendees and allowed everybody an opportunity to reflect on what they wanted to see changed in society.

Harper said she had a conversation with a woman in the community who said she was uncomfortable with the “pain” aspect of the Inkwell name and asked about changing the name to Nicholas Gabaldon Beach. Harper said, sharing she immediately took issue with the proposal because Gabaldon wasn’t the only person who sat and patronized the beach within the confines of Jim Crow.

So even though Inkwell Beach isn’t a person, Harper said she expects hundreds of local residents to attend this weekend’s paddle-out on Saturday at 10 a.m. because its historical significance is too important to Santa Monica’s Black and Brown communities.

“In a million years, I never once thought that I’d have to protest against the erasure of our history but here we are in 2020,” Harper said. “The erasure of black history, and the gentrification of black and brown communities have always been something that’s very important to me. It’s why we worked so hard to get the plaque. Yes, there was pain,” but joy and growth also came from that beach.

“That’s our history, whether it’s painful for you or not,” Harper added. So let’s let the people decide what should happen. And I think that’s what this paddle-out is really going to show — we all support this and you shouldn’t mess with history.”

Brennon@smdp.com