Donald Brunson was never afraid of doing things first. In fact, as the first Black child born in Santa Monica in 1907, this was something he took on from birth.
Donald went on to achieve many other notable “firsts” in his lifetime. He created the first Black boy scout troop in the city, was one of the first Black men to purchase a house outside of a redlined district, and was a founding member of the First AME Church in Santa Monica.
His legacy is hidden all across Santa Monica. It is in the leadership of Santa Monica’s first Black mayor Nat Trives, who was a scout in Donald’s troop. It is in the 100 years of community at the First AME Church. And, it is in the rich archives of the Santa Monica History Museum thanks to his generous donations to the historical society.
Now, 29 years after his death, his contributions to the city will have a visible and permanent marker: Brunson Circle, a roundabout named after Donald right by the house he purchased at Euclid Ave and Michigan Ave.
This installation is thanks to the dedication of his daughter Leana Brunson McClain and the advocacy of the first Black City Councilwoman Kristin McCowan. Leana said the idea to create a historical designation for her father was first suggested to her by former Santa Monica Mayor Nat Trives when Donald passed away in 1993.
“Nat said your father gave so much to Santa Monica; not only that he was the first African American child born, but his commitment to the community and the service that he did. He said a street should be named after him,” said Leana. “So when my brother died two years ago, it just kind of struck me. I said, this is on me now; If this is going to happen, I’m going to have to make it happen.”
And make it happen she did. Leana reached out to Trives who helped her liaise with the City. In February 2021, City Council approved Councilmember McCowan’s motion to designate the circle and in April 2022 a community gathering was held to commemorate its naming. It is Leana’s hope that this signage will preserve the legacy of her father and share the remarkable history of the Brunson family with the next generation of Santa Monicans.
That history dates back to the late 1880s when Selena Carrie McDonald migrated from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles. She married Charles Ernest Augusta Brunson, who migrated from Americus, Georgia and settled in the Santa Monica and Venice area in 1905. Both of their journeys to escape the racism of the South predated the Great Migration (1915-1970) of Black Americans.
Charles Ernest Augusta Brunson, who Leana says was nicknamed ‘alphabet Brunson’ for his many names, was an entrepreneurial young man. Alongside his brothers he began a business using a horse and carriage to transport people from the train station to the beach.
“Santa Monica was really just very, very rural back then. The only thing that was really kind of glamorous were the big mansions that were built along Ocean Avenue, but other than that it was just very barren. In fact, my mother talked about when she married my dad, because she was living in Los Angeles and he brought her to Santa Monica to live, she said she felt like she was going out to the country,” said Leana.
Donald and his brother Vernon were born and raised in the Brunson family home on 1745 5th St, which belonged to the family from 1906 to 1952, when the City purchased it using eminent domain. While the boys were growing up in Santa Monica, their mother Selena was adamant they get a good education. They attended Garfield Elementary School, Lincoln Jr. High and Santa Monica High School.
“She valued education, she really did, and she wanted the best for her two sons. One thing she wanted was for them to be in scouting. At that time, there were only white scout troops and they wouldn’t take my father and his brother, but eventually she did find a troop that did accept my father and his brother Vernon into the scouts for a short period of time, not very long, but it was long enough that my dad was able to get many of his merit badges,” said Leana.
One merit badge Donald was particularly invested in getting was his swimming badge, but at the time the pools in Santa Monica weren’t open to Black people. Nevertheless, Donald was undeterred and taught himself to swim off of the Santa Monica Pier.
Although his time in a troop was cut short, scouting remained important to Donald his entire life. He founded the first all Black boy scouts troop in Santa Monica and served as scout master for almost 30 years. Several notable Black leaders took their first stabs at leadership in Donald’s troop including former Santa Monica Mayor Nat Trives, current Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr, and Alfred Quinn, who was the first black teacher in Santa Monica schools and namesake of the Quinn Research Center.
Donald’s love for scouting took him all the way to two National Boy Scout Jamborees in 1953 and 1957. Both times he was the only Black scout master in attendance.
“Scouting was very much a part of his life. He was very, very proud to be a scout,” said Leana. “My brother and I used to laugh and say he was the world’s oldest boy scout.”
In addition to scouting, Donald was involved in a variety of other community organizations including, but not limited to, the Santa Monica Historical Society, Santa Monica College Council Advisory Board and Lincoln Junior High School PTA.
He met his wife Edna, who originally hailed from Mississippi, at the First AME Church in Los Angeles and brought her to live in his home on 5th Street where they raised their two children Leana and Donald Jr.
Edna, like her husband, became very involved in the Santa Monica community. Her roles included, but were not limited to, serving as a member of the Ocean Park Redevelopment Committee, the Santa Monica College Patrons Association and President of the Madison Elementary School PTA.
When Edna enrolled Leana in Madison Elementary she was the only female Black student as students of color largely went to Garfield Elementary. Growing up Leana said she didn’t think much about often being one of the only Black people in many settings. During the week she got along well with her white classmates and on the weekends was happy to spend time at the First AME Church surrounded by Black peers.
She credits her mother and father for bestowing upon her this sense of confidence and belonging.
Leana remembers her mother as being a composed yet firm advocate for her family. When Leana came home with a school picture day photo in which she could barely be seen, Edna showed the photo to the school and demanded they bring the photographer back and redo it with correct lighting for her skin tone, which they did.
“I was probably the only kid whose mother came for picture day to make sure that the lighting was just right, but that’s how she was: she spoke up. Thinking about how she was raised as an African American in the twenties, you didn’t speak up like that, but she came to California and she found her voice,” said Leana.
Another key moment when Donald and Edna spoke up was when they decided to purchase a house outside of the redlined area of minority homes after the City used eminent domain to buy their 5th St house in 1952. According to Leana, Donald used to describe their block on 5th street as a “little United Nations;” there were Black people, Hispanic people, Italians and Chinese people.
The City displaced many Black and Latino families in the 1950s and 1960s as whole neighborhoods of color were leveled to make way for the construction of the athletic fields, civic auditorium and the I-10 freeway.
Edna and Donald’s home, along with all of the houses on 5th Street, was purchased by the City so the land could be used to expand the athletic field for Santa Monica High School. Finding a new home proved to be challenging as their realtor exclusively showed them listings in the small redlined area between 14th and 20th Street. It was only while driving home from church that the couple saw the for sale by owner sign at a house on Euclid and Michigan.
Much to their surprise, the owner agreed to sell the house to them. The banks however had other ideas and denied Donald a mortgage. This did not sit right with the homeowner Mr. Morales, who agreed to hold the mortgage himself for two years after which point a bank conceded and offered Donald a loan.
The Brunson’s house at 1762 Euclid St. quickly became an important community space and led the way for the neighborhood’s eventual integration. It hosted many church teas, birthday parties and fundraisers. For over ten years the house was the neighborhood polling location and Edna was a certified precinct officer.
While Donald, Edna, Leana and Donald Jr were able to remain in Santa Monica, many Black and Latino families were not able to, or did not elect to, purchase new property after their homes were seized, including Donald’s brother Vernon.
In 2021, City Council approved a new program called the Right to Return pilot in an effort to make amends for this forcible displacement. This program is set to place 100 displaced households and descendants of displaced households on high priority for the City’s affordable housing units.
The Brunson family is among the most documented Black families in Santa Monica history thanks to Edna and Donald’s work with the historical society and generous donations of their photos and documents. However, Leana was frustrated to see news outlets publishing photos of her father Donald in their writing on Santa Monica’s history of forcible displacement and the Right to Return program, thereby erasing the history and continued presence of the Brunson family in Santa Monica.
“The are a lot of Brunson photographs floating around, but it disturbs me when they are not used for the purpose that they were donated for,” said Leana, later adding, “What’s happening is the Brunson story is being painted with a broad brushstroke instead of telling two different stories; my father’s story is different than his brother’s story.”
The Brunsons continued to be an important part of the Santa Monica community long after many other families of color were displaced. Leana, for example, has kept her family’s love of education alive. After graduating from Cal State LA, receiving a teaching certification, and getting a Masters in education from Indiana University, she became the first Black teacher at Franklin Elementary in Santa Monica.
While Leana initially wanted to teach at the more diverse Will Rogers Elementary, she agreed to work at Franklin under the condition she could start a program to support the Black community. The principal agreed and Leana began a partnership with Head Start, a federal program that promotes school readiness for students from low income families. Leana buddied up local Head Start children with her second graders to do educational activities together.
She also developed a great curiosity for other cultures and became a world traveler, accepting international teaching positions, including a posting that made her the first Black teacher at the Aramco school in Saudi Arabia.
Leana hopes that the new Brunson Circle signage will spread a greater awareness of the Brunson history and legacy, while serving as a testament to her father’s lifelong contributions to the community.