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Tony Corley: Evolution of the Black Surfing Association

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Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real and explore the rich, diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County. This installment in the series celebrates the mavericks, pioneers, and experimental thinkers of the county.

Tony Corley speaks with a ready smile and a surfers twang as he recalled his letter to SURFER Magazine that sparked his founding of the Black Surfing Association. The year was 1974 and Corley was living in the California coastal auspices of Port Hueneme working and surfing, and cogitating on finding other surfers of color in a community where he was isolated because of his race.

"I had plenty of white surfer friends," said Corley. "But I was looking for other black surfers out of a need for a sense of belonging within a culture that wasn't always accepting of blacks."

In his letter to SURFER, Corley described his need for unity. "Attention Black Surfing Brothers: In ten years of wave riding, I've met only two black brothers who've sought the sensuous pleasures found in the tubes of Mother Ocean. One of the two B.S.B.'s [Black Surfing Brothers] was a Syracuse graduate and football star. He, Major James "Star" Norman, came to California with the military, fell in love with the sea, and we all know the rest. He rode with the power and determination of Greg Noll, like a bull moose. But, alas, like so many surfing compadres, marriage, family rearing, and career took him away. Since that time, in the mid-60s, no B.S.B.'s have I found. Many of my other wave-riding brothers from all over the US coastal areas have told of B.S.B.'s in their areas, never have our paths crossed."

Corley ended the letter with a plea, "Stand up and make yourselves known, B.S.B.'s. It could be the beginning of a hot wave of color." He received dozens of letters from Black surfers from all over the world.

Sitting in his front yard shaded by California live oak trees, Corley pulled out his letters and personal ephemera from the SURFER article that began his quest.

"I had been seeking other brothers to surf with," said Corley. "In Port Hueneme, I was surfing right by the towers and ran into [filmmaker] Stacy Peralta and I asked him if he knew of any Black surfers." Peralta suggested David Landsdowne. "I would see David at the Western Surf contests and recalled his standings in contest results," recalled Corley. "Not knowing how to reach him or other brothers, the idea came to me to write to SURFER. I wrote the letter thinking they probably won't even publish it. After two or three months of having sent in my letter, I picked up the January 1974 issue, saw my letter and said 'hey that's me!"

"I think the first letter I got was from David [Landsdowne] and it was a very positive response. But the second letter came in an anonymous envelope," he said. Corley pulled out a frame containing a crude handwritten letter. "I was enthusiastic at first, then I saw it...oh boy," he paused. "I saw the KKK and the boiling pot and the noose, thinking it must be a joke. Someone is getting their clown on, but it was for real."

The letter reads with many spelling errors: "Tony "Niger" Corley, Stay out of the water, coon. Don't start a Black Panther Surfing Club either. The ocean is for humans not spooks. You animals shouldn't even be allowed in the water in Africa. If you start a black niger, spook pie club coon surf club, there's going to be trouble you, gumby." Yellowed from age, the letter's illustration is even more incendiary. The letter includes the abbreviation for the Klu Klux Klan and a drawing of a hangman's noose, alongside a puerile sketch of an African man in a boiling pot of flames. 

"I was hoping to meet other Black surfers maybe go on surf safaris together. The hate mail took me by surprise and fueled my ambitions even more. I formalized the BSA right on the spot," described Corley.

Corley recalled an earlier racially charged incident as a teenager in San Luis Obispo County. He attended a party as the only African American in a large crowd of teens. He was approached by a small group of young white men. "One of them said to me 'Don't take offence if I call you the n-word, I shot back 'Don't take offence if I sock you in the head.' And we left it at that," said Corley.

Growing up in the northern part of San Luis Obispo County, 40 miles from the closest surf break, didn't stop Corley from discovering his love for surfing at an early age. He recalled a pilgrimage which led him to surfing. "Initially in 6th grade I wanted a Go-Kart," laughed Corley. "I would watch a friend and a couple school acquaintances race their karts, and that got me started on getting one of my own. I had my eye on a kit Go-Kart I saw in a magazine, so my plan was to save soda pop bottles and sell papers on the street. I saved enough money finally for the kit but my parents said no way because it was a death trap. I was devastated. I had $150 saved up."

With his Go-Kart career crushed before it even began, in the 7th grade on a trip to a local beach, Corley finally found his purpose and love for surfing. "My parents took me and a pal to beach and we rented surfboards at Cayucos pier," remembered Corley. "I drank a lot of saltwater that day and got hit in the head a few times by the board. But having watched Gidget I knew sort of what to do and pearled under the water and caught my first wave. Afterward I lay exhausted on the sand, looking up at the sky -- with my hand touching the board...I knew. I knew this day would change my life forever. With my Go-Kart money I bought my first Dewey Weber surfboard. That was in the beginning, 1963." Corley looked down, then continued, "In retrospect I never would have discovered surfing or founded the B.S.A. or traveled to so many different countries, had I bought that Go-Kart."

Corley attended Cuesta College and Cal Poly, studying to work in the Social Services field, while working nights with the California Youth Authority. He met his wife Rose Garza Corley at Cuesta and today they manage the Black Surfing Association's endeavors -- campouts, surf trips, and mentoring young Black surfers. The B.S.A. has grown to include chapters all over the world.

Corley and his wife raised their family on the Central Coast, all the while working together committed to the mission of the Black Surfing Association. In 1981, Corley penned an inaugural directory of Black surfers. "The directory was a culmination of all the interest my letter to SURFER generated and the early work of the BSA," said Corley. "And it was the first of its kind."

Corley wrote a heartfelt typed inscription to the directory. "The directory is the recorded beginning of a continuous search of our unique character and individuality so fluidly expressed in dancing -- wave dancing. We, herein, are the literal main ingredient of a developing organization of young, old, male and female Black persons who seek to share the pleasures of our Creator's oceanic rhythms. Our distinctive group, which is increasing in number, is greatly diversified in our individual perspectives and pursuits. Our politics, philosophies, vocations. and social relations are as varied lifestyles, we are bonded together by two cosmic forces, blood and water. The blood belongs to our ancestral African roots and the water being the oceans and seas of the world."

Corley ended the inscription with Umoja is the Swahili word for "unity" and added his edict, "together as one, in God's name, let us surf, share, and save our oceans and seas."


Editor's note: This post was updated to reflect the correct place name, Port Hueneme. 

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