A Historic Seaside Community: Recovering Santa Monica's "Inkwell" Beach

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tags: historic preservation, African American history, Los Angeles, public history, Southern California, beaches, recreation

My dad and I stand in front of a plaque set in stone. Mexican fan palms tower on either side, sand at their base cordoned off by concrete. Families walk by distracted by conversations or by keeping an eye on their own children. Rollerbladers and bicyclists glide across the bike path, dodge pedestrians strolling in their way.

No one pauses to read the plaque’s words. I don’t see anyone glance over.

The first and biggest words read in capital letters: “THE INK WELL.” And underneath: “A place of celebration and pain…an important gathering place for African Americans long after racial restrictions on public beaches were abandoned in 1927…they encountered less racial harassment [here] than at other Southland beaches…”[1]

We scan the wide expanse of footprint-laden sand. A sky blue lifeguard tower keeps watch near the horizon, a line of dot-sized sunbathers and recovering swimmers extending from either side. Volleyball nets are strung above the granules and Latinos relax on the short concrete divider between the sand and bike path.

I can’t picture this section of Ocean Park Beach separated, a hotel fence dividing it from the white Casa del Mar Beach Club. Only a quarter mile separating Bay and Bicknell Streets.

Before we arrived at Ocean Park Beach, I asked my dad if he knew what the Inkwell was.

“No. What is it?” I showed him the entry in A People’s Guide to Los Angeles. “Huh. I never knew.” His eyes ran over the final sentences—an entry in a book formatted as a travel guide, set to “[reimagine]…what Los Angeles has been and will become.” Someone who’s lived in Los Angeles for over 50 years had never heard about a beach set aside for African Americans.

We observe this stretch of beach between the Venice Boardwalk and the Santa Monica Pier, this smaller section that is the Inkwell. Not far from the plaque, on the sand, dodgeball has broken out. Rubber balls sting bare skin. At the café, south along the bike path, conversations in accented English intermingle with the conversations of other customers. A couple walking by speaks French.

Before there was the Inkwell, in the early days of the 20th century, parishioners of the Philips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, four blocks up on Bay, would head to Ocean Park Beach after services. For picnics. For good conversations with warm friends. Yet, here, they were harassed by police on behalf of white beachgoers simply for their presence.[2]




Simply, for being at the beach while Black.

Memorial Day 1920. A young African American chauffeur, Arthur Valentine, settled on “Whites Only” Topanga Beach. With friends and family, he stepped from his truck. Three sheriff’s deputies demanded that they leave. One commanded, “Niggers” are not allowed on this beach.[3]

They were near Topanga Canyon, allegedly trespassing on Deputy Sheriff Archie Cooper’s land. But it was not uncommon for visitors to pitch their tents in the sand along this slender beach front, the Santa Monica Mountains rising almost abruptly behind them in crags and crevices of chaparral.[4]

Undoubtedly Valentine understood his party’s options to enjoy the holiday with flags flying and fireworks exploding were virtually nonexistent. Even as he found no problems in his mostly white neighborhood near San Pedro Street downtown.[5] The numbers of African Americans in Los Ángeles County were now rivalling that of eastern cities.[6] Indeed, the wives and children arrived wanting to bask in the warm salt tinged air, listen to the waves lap at the Topanga shore, 15 minutes from the Ocean Park Pier, from its “beautiful and alluring Egyptian Ballroom.”[7]

Several hundred feet south of the short, plain Crystal Pier.

Bay and Bicknell Streets were a quick stroll, where, what would be the Inkwell, was already attracting African Americans to the only section of sand where they were mostly left alone.
Certainly these children threw off their shoes, sand creeping between their toes, and waded into the blue waters of the wide Pacific. They’d jump as the initial chill slid over their skin. Giggle as the water chased them up the sand.

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