Reclaiming Black Beaches: On Alison Rose Jefferson’s “Living the California Dream”

December 15, 2020   •   By Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Living the California Dream

Alison Rose Jefferson

ALISON ROSE JEFFERSON documents a world I knew little about before reading her new important book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with Black beaches and the networks of beautiful Black people who summer together. Sag Harbor, specifically The Hamptons’ African American enclave known as SANS, figures prominently in my family narrative. My mother’s first kiss was on Ninevah Beach. My family by marriage has owned homes over four generations in Sag, and these days I visit with my husband and son most summers. Oak Bluffs is also an important community in my family’s story. When I was a child we’d ferry over to Martha’s Vineyard, where I grabbed the brass ring on the Flying Carousel. Starting in my 20s, I’d ferry with friends, then soul clap with my Gen X peers at Atlantic Connection. My family never visited Maryland’s Highland Beach, but we knew the history and the beauty of the place. Chicken Bone Beach, a stretch of sand in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was a favorite destination of ours. My mother is captured in a group picture in Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks’s book, Chicken Bone Beach: A Pictorial History of Atlantic City’s Missouri Avenue Beach. She’s in the “Beauties” chapter and stands with her girlfriends, arms around each other, bikini-clad and smiling in the sun. A discrete group of well-heeled Americans understands the nuances and connotations of each word in this paragraph. They are African Americans with the privilege, pluck, and good luck to afford to holiday together by the sea.


Even with my family background, I never knew there were similar leisure sites out west, on the left coast, as we say, over in Cali. Jefferson’s book stirred powerful memories nonetheless, articulating an important chapter of my middle-class Black life: the determination of Black people to own vacation property; a sense of being nestled in a community that affirmed my worth; and close encounters with brilliant Black celebrities who shared wisdom and laughter in a bubble of beautiful Blackness, all of us connected to the joy of gathering for no other purpose than a great time. More than that, Jefferson documents how that life was made possible: how striving Black people gathered their resources to insist that our people would taste the salty wet of the sea.


Unlike Chicken Bone Beach and other books that mention my family — like African Americans of Harrisburg in the Black America Series and Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People — all three of which center the victories of the Black bourgeoisie, Jefferson captures the bad times as much as she celebrates the good. Indeed, her book is a credit and an homage to the Black folk who toughed it out, bearing the indignity of police surveillance, arson, and financial and psychological violence so that their descendants could prosper. Yet Living the California Dream is so much more than a compendium of various oppressions. Jefferson reminds us:


African American history is more than how black people got along with white people in the larger, white society. African Americans and their institutions exist beyond their connection to whites and their response to white oppression. African American people and their history are obscured if there is no understanding of their embrace of life in all its complexity, including how they enjoyed their free time at recreation and leisure destinations of their creation.


Barriers to entry for African American beachgoers were, of course, what gave rise to Black beach enclaves in the early 20th century. We created our own way, despite white racism and white supremacist policies that prohibited African American access to public pools, campgrounds, golf courses, tennis courts, parks, and beaches. According to Jefferson, it’s essential that we view African American leisure as a product of “distinctive initiative and resourcefulness, cultural self-expression, self-determination, and political activism amid systematic exclusion and dispossession of public rights.”


The book begins at Bruce’s Beach, where in 1912 Willa “Willie” Bruce purchased the first of two lots near the Pacific Ocean, between 26th and 27th streets on Manhattan Beach, for the relatively high price of $1,225. By 1913, Willie built Bruce’s Lodge, and in 1920 she purchased the adjacent lot. In 1923, Bruce owned two buildings on the original lot, and three years later six other Black Angeleno families purchased land near Bruce’s Lodge. This should have been the origin story of a thriving Black beach community, like Oak Bluffs, Highland, or Sag Harbor on the East Coast; instead, through the 1920s, white landowners pushed a harmful local ordinance, posted “private” signs at the public beach, and, in the tradition of their white supremacist brethren in the KKK, lit a cross aflame to intimidate and evict Bruce’s Beach landowners.


A local paper recorded the uptick in KKK agitation at Bruce’s Beach, as well as the resistance that grew in Black organizations like the NAACP. Despite this organized opposition, white racist backlash to Black uplift spread throughout Los Angeles. Jefferson documents similar racist tactics in Santa Monica, where in 1922 the violence of white exclusion prevailed when African Americans were coerced into abandoning their Ocean Park development project of a Santa Monica beachside resort. The same anti-Black strategies prevailed in El Segundo, where in 1925 white citizens’ groups blocked Black businessman Titus Alexander from developing a beachfront amusement park. Organized white supremacist organizations like the white citizens and the KKK prevailed throughout Los Angeles, and local police, which Black landowners ironically helped finance through their tax dollars, acted on behalf of whites.


The violence at Bruce’s Beach became so acute that on July 4 in 1927, white police harassed, assaulted, and arrested 19-year-old Elizabeth Catley. Her crime? Swimming. Racist policies and systems are evil forces local police officers embody when they intimidate Black people. The officers, as described by Jefferson’s detailed account of the incident, personify the violence of sinister public policies that destroyed the efforts of Black strivers. Ultimately, the white folks won. Bruce’s Beach is now a memory because of eminent domain, a policy that enabled the legalized theft of Black property. When eminent domain was used to appropriate Bruce’s Beach, the city stole from Black Angelenos the privilege of access to a leisure site of their making. Of course, system controllers pinched more than a vision of good times; theft of Black property is also theft of Black wealth.


Jefferson laments this loss of intergenerational wealth-building opportunities, and because of her meticulous documentation of the facts, no reader can depart from her book blaming Black people for the oppression we’ve endured. Jefferson places responsibility for Black losses where it belongs: in the greedy hands of system controllers, whose strategic maneuverings and domination over the law compelled “the lost economic opportunities forfeited by the African American resort landowners due to their city fathers’ 1920s land dispossession.” Though African Americans would gain access to Manhattan Beach thanks to the efforts of early Black Californians and their organizational power in institutions like the NAACP, the Bruce family and others lost the land they owned because of the unrelenting assault of white power structures, including elected officials, white citizens’ councils, the local real estate industry, and the police, all of which were designed and built to edify the socially constructed supremacy of whiteness.


Even contemporary attempts to right these past wrongs have failed. Not only has there been no restitution to the family descendants who developed and then lost property at Bruce’s Beach, but without Jefferson’s book, their contributions to Los Angeles would be practically erased from public memory. While there is a plaque installed at the former location of Bruce’s Beach — now a public park — the text on the plaque fails to document “the nonviolent, but militant, NAACP civil rights agents of the 1920s,” as Jefferson writes, “who stood up in civil disobedience and whose actions aided in forcing the city government to discontinue discriminatory land leasing policies inhibiting African Americans from Manhattan Beach public shoreline usage.”


The use of the diminutive term “minority families” on the plaque erases what Jefferson calls an “African American collective” that secured access to beachgoing for future generations. She argues that the task remains for the city to recognize Bruce’s Beach resort settlers “as Manhattan Beach pioneers themselves, who encouraged economic development through real estate transactions, property improvements, and leisure consumption.”


Eminent domain and urban renewal did more than enable the elimination of Bruce’s Beach; this expropriation of private property for public use continued to be weaponized against BIPOC through the 20th century. My family launched an unsuccessful bid to resist urban renewal on the street where the funeral home my great-grandfather founded was located. My savvy grandmother was able to save the business by rebuilding in another part of town, but the family story is that my great-grandfather passed away years young due to racism’s impact on him while he created a powerful family legacy. Black families like those at Bruce’s Beach and my own in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, weren’t the only victims of public policies like urban renewal and eminent domain. Maxine Hong Kingston writes about urban renewal in her memoir The Woman Warrior, and Asian American activists in the Yellow Power Movement worked to eliminate this persistent policy in the 1960s. Jefferson’s book centers African Americans in California, but she acknowledges the “open discrimination against African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and Jews” in California, as well as Europeans who became white over the 20th century.


In Corona, she writes, “When the municipal pool opened in 1925, Mexicans, Italians, and other ‘foreigners’ could only swim on Mondays: the day before the ‘dirty’ pool water was changed on Tuesdays, so it would be ‘clean’ for whites to swim.”


According to Jefferson, these policies prohibiting access to public leisure sites reflected similar racist policies in housing, employment, and education. Across BIPOC communities, solidarity against white oppression emerged:


Mexicans and Italians, like descendants of African Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and other ethnoracial groups in other parts of Southern California, relied on family, kinship, and neighborhood ties to create a vibrant community life. Many of these marginalized groups turned segregation into forms of congregation and developed their own separate institutions, organizations, and leisure activities. The contributions of these groups to the development of Corona and other local communities and the nation are gradually becoming more fully documented and recognized, alongside the narratives of white American elites.


In California, marginalized groups often enough worked together to achieve a kind of freedom. African Americans and Jewish Americans cooperated to ensure their own access to Lake Elsinore, another California leisure site, by committing their resources to each other. African American businessperson, real estate operator, and civic leader Thomas R. Yarborough fostered this coalition. Jefferson writes:


As African Americans and Jews became more visible in Lake Elsinore in the 1940s, and more confident in standing up for their civil rights, there were a few discrimination situations against individuals of both groups where establishments along Main Street refused them service. Yarborough rallied Jewish leaders in a common cause to fight these Jim Crow tactics, so that anyone could patronize any establishment for a drink or a meal in the business district without fear of discrimination.


Jefferson’s book celebrates this mutually beneficial coalition and explicitly calls for the nation to center BIPOC in the way that Living the California Dream does, and to preserve the heritage of the state’s African American leisure sites. She identifies community memory as a valuable cultural asset, one as important as the financial wealth that often accumulates within seaside communities. Stories like those told by four generations in my Black family are important: we witness the past in our own community because our stories are not part of the mainstream public memory.


The plaque honoring Bruce’s Beach’s past is significant on its own but especially so in the context of white erasure of Black stories, white marginalization of Black bodies, and white appropriation of Black power. As Jefferson notes, “memory [is] a site of political power.” As is the case with so much American history, we and our testimonies serve as evidence. Jefferson writes in her introduction that her book “contributes to the accumulating body of knowledge examining African American agency and the consideration of memory as a mechanism of power in race and resistance.” She is, of course, correct. Memory is not just evidence. Memory is power.



Erasure of memory is also power. Eminent domain’s destruction of Bruce’s Beach was concrete and enduring. This patch of land was originally envisioned by the Black imagination as a Black-built locus of financial and psychological repair for the harm consistently done to Black people. Because of white, anti-Black racism, Bruce’s Beach disappeared. White system controllers reclaimed and renamed this Black-owned land in the same decade that the Greenwood section in Tulsa, Oklahoma — an area so prosperous it was called the Black Wall Street — was set aflame by a resentful white mob. The destruction of Bruce’s Beach was simply done differently.


A series of names erased the past, and the area was changed to City Park, and then Beachfront Park, and then Bayview Terrace Park, and then, lastly, in 1974, Parque Culiacan. Black Californians organized to officially recognize the area as Bruce’s Beach, to respect the area’s Black strivers and offer public acknowledgment of the intentional and literal erasure of their good name. Through the early 2000s, local white elected officials refused to properly honor them. Jefferson insists this insult was deliberate. “[I]nsistence to preserve the Parque Culiacan name, its symbolism, and its physical signage,” she tells us, “was a political act of power in selective remembrance and organized forgetting.” Black direct action offered relief from this racism, and today a sign identifying the park as Bruce’s Beach is a literal signpost to the past. Living the California Dream ensures that we never forget. 


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Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning. A Pulitzer Center grantee, she has contributed to ReadersDigest.com, The Hollywood Reporter, Essence, Parents, The Washington Post, Ms. Health, Ebony, The Huffington Post, Pen.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Root, and Truthout.