This year, Carolyne Edwards became an octogenarian, but her milestone birthday isn’t the only reason she stands out. There’s also her birthplace — Santa Monica. Part of a multigenerational Black family who made a home in the city’s Pico neighborhood, Edwards, a Quinn Research Center archivist, is a reminder that this affluent beach town has a rich African American history. That fact tends to surprise Southern Californians, even those from Santa Monica.
“We get it all the time — people come up to us and say, ‘We didn't know that Black people live in Santa Monica,” Edwards said. “And there was a huge population there.”
Today, Santa Monica, a city of 90,401 residents, is 4.4% Black; that’s only about half of Los Angeles County’s percentage of African Americans. Once upon a time, the city was a magnet for Black job seekers, who flocked there for work after Douglas Aircraft moved to Santa Monica Airport in 1929. At its peak, the company employed 44,000 people, including thousands of African Americans who attended Black churches in Santa Monica, such as First African Methodist Episcopal or Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal. While these churches still stand, many of the other buildings associated with historic Black Santa Monica do not. After crews began construction on the Santa Monica Freeway in 1957, African Americans were displaced — their homes razed and their neighborhoods destroyed — to make way for the project.
Now, three different (but related) endeavors are raising awareness about the history and displacement of Santa Monica's African American communities. Through the Quinn Research Center, which provides historical information about Santa Monica and Venice's Black residents, Edwards is documenting African American life in Santa Monica’s Broadway Historic District. She’s also collaborating with 18th Street Arts Center’s Culture Mapping 90404 project, which is recording the history of people of color in the Pico neighborhood through cultural resources, oral recollections and an interactive map with story tables and video. In addition to Edwards, 18th Street Arts has teamed up with historian Alison Rose Jefferson on the undertaking. She joins artist April Banks and Santa Monica's Department of Cultural Affairs in highlighting the African American history of the city’s Belmar neighborhood with art, interpretive elements and an educational program.
While well-known Black Santa Monicans, such as physician Dr. Marcus Tucker or surfer Nick Gaboldon, have long been celebrated, now the contributions of the rank-and-file African Americans who formed communities in the city are garnering recognition. On Aug. 26, the Santa Monica City Council named the town’s new 3.5-acre multipurpose sports field the Historic Belmar Park to commemorate the site that was once home to a Black neighborhood. But these efforts also raise questions about African Americans in the city today. As gentrification makes the beach town even less affordable, Black Santa Monicans whose families have lived there for generations are struggling to remain there. Just as the freeway displaced African Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s, rising rents and home prices threaten to do the same in 2020.
Scars left by the Santa Monica Freeway are still visible on the parking lot of the First A.M.E. Church, which Edwards and her husband, Bill, commute to from their current home in the San Fernando Valley.
“You can see where it has been cut into because they had to take part of it for the freeway,” Edwards said of the lot. “As a result of the freeway coming through there, they took out 19th Street from Michigan all the way up to Olympic, which is just family homes. The African Americans who lived in that area — they just gave them a few dollars and told them, ‘Take this and you can go elsewhere,’ but they were not able to relocate in Santa Monica because the property is so expensive.”
Instead, they moved to places like Los Angeles, Pacoima and Inglewood, their presence sorely missed in their old Santa Monica neighborhoods. Edwards calls the building of the freeway a traumatic experience for African Americans since the thoroughfare literally divided their communities. The freeway also obscures the Black history that remains in Santa Monica.
"Our church is located off the beaten track, right off the freeway," Edwards said. "Coming down the freeway, you would never know it was there; you can't see it because of the freeway walls. People come straight to Santa Monica down the freeway, and they don't see any evidence of African Americans in a community, in homes, anything."
Established in 1988, 18th Street Arts is in the heart of the Pico neighborhood. That's a major reason why the organization wanted to use a large grant it received from the Irvine foundation five years ago to work on the cultural mapping project to document the history there. The center spent two years collecting the oral histories of 60 Santa Monicans of color and has also highlighted Pico's past on its digital map of the 90404 area.
“We were really interested in collecting untold stories of Santa Monica that we felt didn't get as much attention in the public perception of Santa Monica as, well, a beach town,” said Sue Bell Yank, 18th Street Arts Center’s deputy director. “As we were collecting these oral histories, we found ourselves really focusing on the stories of Black, Indigenous and people of color in the neighborhood — the displacement of the 10 freeway and the effect that had on different communities right near us.”
The freeway devastated the Pico neighborhood, but some African Americans in the Belmar area had their properties destroyed via eminent domain years before the thoroughfare was built. The Culture Mapping 90404 project includes images of shotgun houses in the largely Black and brown Belmar neighborhood, burned to the ground in 1953 as part of Santa Monica’s “Build America Better” campaign to rid the city of blight. Shotgun houses could be found citywide in the 1800s when people first began moving to Santa Monica in large numbers, so the idea that they caused blight appeared to be an underhanded way for the city to uproot the communities of color along Santa Monica’s valuable beachside. In fact, after officials paved over the Black-owned homes and businesses the city had destroyed, Santa Monica built other properties in their place, such as the civic auditorium. Some displaced Belmar residents ended up in the city’s Broadway District, which is farther from the beach and had lower property values.
“We would like for people to know that the Broadway area between 14th and 20th Street has a history," Edwards said. "At one time, it was a pretty self-contained community, and they had all kinds of businesses. We have primary sources showing these businesses exist."
And through the Belmar History + Art civic commemoration project, artist April Banks and historian Alison Rose Jefferson are working with the city of Santa Monica to build works of art and a digital archive of photos and resources about that neighborhood’s history. They also want to create a curriculum with the University of California Los Angeles for Santa Monica schools to use. Moreover, plans are in store for them to explore the history of Bay Street Beach, a 53-acre historic district that African Americans frequented during the Jim Crow era. In 2019, the beach was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Banks wonders what Black Santa Monica would be like today if African American communities hadn’t been razed or torched.
“If the [Belmar] community had not been erased, what would life be like now, or even 50 years from now?” she asked. “Imagine if this was like prime beachfront property that was like a Leimert Park or a Harlem. It's pretty shocking to think about.”
In commemoration of the historic Black Belmar neighborhood, Banks has created a life-size sculpture — “A Resurrection in Four Stanzas” — of a typical shotgun home once commonly found there. It will be unveiled once Historic Belmar Park, which is near completion, opens to the public. In addition to the sculpture, the site will feature a permanent public history exhibition about the Belmar neighborhood’s businesses, places of worship and community members.
“I've been doing a lot to kind of reimagine and rebuild, and that's really what the art piece is about,” Banks said. “The permanent art sculpture is taking one of the typical homes from that neighborhood and rebuilding it at full scale, so not the full complete house but four pieces of it.”
Learn more about the Belmar project in the video below:
Banks chose to recreate a home for the project because it represents more than just a physical dwelling but a way to discuss loss and displacement. When people are forced to leave their homes, communities are dispersed and destroyed, she said.
African Americans may have faced marginalization and discrimination in Santa Monica, but their roots in the city date back to its founding in the 19th century, according to Jefferson, author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”
“They were coming out to Santa Monica just like everybody else who was looking to settle there,” she said. “They wanted to be by the beach. They saw some opportunities in terms of employment where they might fit in within the context of the times. They also were participating in the land boom that was going on. They were looking for a new life for themselves, and they were looking to be able to make money and be viable.”
But racism often interfered with their dreams. When African Americans tried to launch a resort in the Belmar area in the 1920s, city officials used zoning laws to block the project, Jefferson said. And many of the African Americans who left Santa Monica when eminent domain forced them out of their homes did not return. In 2020, concerns about gentrification are raising fears that the small Black population still there will disappear as well.
"Particularly, it's a problem in the Pico neighborhood because you have new people who are moving in and don't have the same sense of the community as some of the people that have lived there for a long time," Jefferson said. "And the majority of new folks that are moving in, whether they be white or black, are a higher income level than those that may have moved in during the earlier decades."
The gentrification unfolding in the city today influenced 18th Street Arts’s decision to start its culture mapping project. As hundreds of technology companies move to Santa Monica and the Westside as part of the Silicon Beach movement, Yank fears more history could be erased.
"We just felt that it was really important to hang on to these histories because it felt like they were being very rapidly lost in some ways through gentrification, displacement and rising property values," she said. "We wanted to be able to hold on to these histories, but also show new folks coming in that Santa Monica wasn't just a blank slate where nothing had happened before."
Santa Monica has been the site of multiple Black Lives Matter protests since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on Memorial Day. Protesters have complained that they have been subjected to police violence while peacefully demonstrating in the beach town, while the news media has focused on the looting and vandalism of Santa Monica’s luxury stores on Third Street Promenade. Moreover, Santa Monicans of color have pointed out that the city’s most ethnically diverse areas, such as the Pico neighborhood, lack the wealth found in other communities there.
The Black Lives Matter protests have also brought to mind a 2015 Santa Monica Police incident that made national headlines. A Black woman named Fay Wells said that her white male neighbor mistook her for a burglar after she locked herself out of her apartment and hired a locksmith to get back inside. At the neighbor’s behest, a large group of Santa Monica police officers showed up to Wells’ apartment with their guns drawn, traumatizing Wells, she said, and outraging the public. That same year, activists and residents met with the Santa Monica Police Department “to discuss several incidents of aggressive policing against people of color,” Wells reported in the Washington Post.
Edwards said that she knew Wells and of similar incidents that have occurred in Santa Monica. She suspects that many of the individuals who have called the police on African Americans aren’t Santa Monica natives but transplants who have brought their harmful stereotypes with them.
“These are some sick, sick people who don't see individuals,” she said. “They see color only, which is sad, but hopefully we will get to a point where things will be different. But I do see progress happening from the early 1940s up until now; it's slow but sure.”
Today, activists say that fighting gentrification and preserving Santa Monica’s communities of color is one way to achieve racial justice. Although Edwards now lives in the Valley, she fields phone calls all the time from realtors who want her to sell the Santa Monica home of her late parents. “And it's not just people who are located here in California,” she said. “It's people from all over the world who want to come and buy the property.”
Edwards has chosen not to give up the home. She said her late father worked three jobs to buy the property and afford Santa Monica’s standard of living.
“My mother and father, on their deathbeds, they said, ‘Please do not ever sell the property,” Edwards recalled. “They worked very hard for it.”
For now, it is one Santa Monica property that will remain Black-owned.
Top Image: Les Uniques Social Club initiation ceremony of new officers at the Buckman home in Santa Monica, 1954. | Persil Lewis. Courtesy of the Quinn Research Center