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Black in Santa Monica: They Came Seeking Their California Dream

The untold story of the Black communities that thrived in Santa Monica.

Illustration Courtesy of Culture Mapping 90404 — Color Sheet

“Where are you from?”

A question often asked to pry about my roots, but truthfully, it’s always been hard to answer. I’m a westside Los Angeles kid. Throughout my youth I lived in Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Baldwin Hills. I’ve been somewhat of an Angeleno nomad.

However, my mother’s maternal and paternal sides have been rooted in Santa Monica since the late 1930s.

When I mention this to both Black and white folk alike, there’s a particular shock: “What?! I didn’t know Black people lived in Santa Monica.” It’s a common misconception. Especially if you aren’t familiar with the history of the area’s racist housing policies and systemic injustices, such as the building of the Interstate 10 freeway and the displacement of the thriving community of color that used to be. Black businesses and Black professionals used to thrive in Santa Monica.

My 3rd Great Aunt in Santa Monica circa late 1930s | Courtesy of Jeremy Divinity

The historical, once-vibrant, Black neighborhoods in Santa Monica helped establish the beach community as we now know it.

Not many outsiders know of Santa Monica for its close-knit communities of people of color who have called it home. Between 1920 and 1970, during what is known as the Great Migration, African-Americans left the south in search of better opportunities. Thousands of African-American families landed in the sleepy beachside country town of Santa Monica. In the late 1930s, one of those families was my own. Word traveled back home to Arkansas that, “The beach is so clean you can sleep on it.”

Most of these families, coupled with the influx of Hispanics in the area, called the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica home.

Over the past half-century, the Pico neighborhood in Santa Monica has been a crown jewel for people of color. The Pico Neighborhood is a historically Black neighborhood, which still bears the legacy of the racial segregation that created it. 

Due to informal discriminatory housing practices and racist restrictive real estate covenants, Black people couldn’t buy, rent, or own property outside of the Pico corridor. Black residents couldn’t own property north of Wilshire, south of Ocean Park, or west of 4th Street. You didn’t see Black people north of Montana, a “sundown” town, as they were forced out of that side of town after dark. Segregation even hit the public beach, as Black residents migrated to the Inkwell — the oceanfront at the bottom of Pico, between Bay Street and Bicknell Avenue.

My 2nd Grandma and Great-Grandma at the Inkwell (Santa Monica Beach, CA) | Courtesy of Jeremy Divinity

Throughout the Jim Crow era in California, white people prevented African-Americans from holding businesses or property by the ocean, to keep Black visitors away from the beach. White businessmen and property owners applied a “Caucasian Clause,” which prevented the leasing, sale, or occupation to people that weren’t white in areas close to the beach (as well as other areas of affluence).

Today, an estimated 80% of minority residents in Santa Monica reside within the Pico neighborhood.

Pico is a mecca of culture, community, and camaraderie. The neighborhood is defined by the people that live there. I am a descendant of four generations of Pico neighborhood residents and a product of the cultural influence that the neighborhood has had on my family. Pico has always been my favorite street in Los Angeles because of that profound historical connection.

I always found a kinship to the area. As an adult, I have called the Pico area home and lived blocks away from my grandmother’s and my mom’s childhood home. The house sits on the edge of the 10 Freeway, barely spared, with a constant buzz of traffic that serves as a reminder of the historical injustice and racial infrastructure divide.

That property is no longer in our family, and I was heartbroken when my grandmother sold it. The house was our family’s, and one of the last Black family presences in the area.

The feeling was and still is bittersweet.

As the citizens in the community disperse, so does the history and their story. Now that I’ve moved out of Santa Monica, although not far, the distance away from the neighborhood I care deeply about needs its story to be told.

In the 1950 and ‘60s, with the development of the Interstate 10 freeway, Santa Monica was no different from other thriving Black communities across the country destroyed because of racist policies surrounding the development of the interstate highway program. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government routed the national interstate highway to eliminate or shift the residential placement of African-American families and marginalized communities. In Santa Monica, the freeway divided the Pico neighborhood, cutting it in half, and displaced thousands of Black families.

This past summer, I found an address from a census in the ‘60s of my great-grandfather. That property no longer exists. The 10 Freeway sits there instead. However, my family was still blessed to call Santa Monica home. A lot of other Black families weren’t so lucky. Many families that lost their homes moved to neighborhoods outside of Santa Monica, such as Venice, Inglewood, and the San Fernando Valley.

The development of the 10 Freeway razed entire Black communities and serves as a monument to the historical racism in this country. Santa Monica is no different. The construction of the freeway drove a stake through the heart of the close-knit Black neighborhood. The percentage of Black residents during this period nearly dropped by more than half. The freeway displaced the people, homes, and businesses that once made Santa Monica a “somewhat” desirable place for Black Americans to call home. Entire neighborhoods were divided, separated, and forced to relocate in the name of eminent domain.

It wouldn’t be the first time that discriminatory and racist policies restricted Black people’s access to the city. In 1922, Black investors who purchased land at the end of Pico to develop into an amusement and resort facility were barred by white residents who protested against the development — Shutters on the Beach now sits on that land. Also, in 1922, white homeowners in Ocean Park organized the Santa Monica Bay Protective League. The organization’s primary purpose was to keep Black people out of the area. In an editorial published in a Santa Monica newspaper, they decried the African-Americans who also called Santa Monica home, “We don’t want you here; now and forever, this is a white man’s town.” 

That same year, the Santa Monica Bay Protective League closed down Caldwell’s on Third Street, a nightclub that brought African-Americans from all over the city, by ruling against nightclubs in residential neighborhoods. The few Black businesses close to the beach were forced out by city decree, such as the once planned “Ebony Beach Club” proposed at Pico Boulevard and Ocean Avenue in 1958.

Dance banquet for African-Americans in Santa Monica (pictured in the top right is my Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother) | Courtesy of Jeremy Divinity

Similar to the historical injustices and massacres of affluent Black communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Wilmington, North Carolina, Black people not only had a thriving community in Santa Monica, but they also called it home while challenging oppression and discrimination to dismantle anti-Black racial barriers.

When we think about our cities today, there is an untold history of the landscape and the communities that used to live there — a divergent reality. The consequences impact wealth, equity, resources, education, housing, and — most importantly — opportunity. 

The destruction of the Black neighborhood in Santa Monica and the Pico neighborhood diminished the possibility of the kinds of generational wealth-building opportunities that most Americans had: homeownership and business development. For the community of color who once called the now-prosperous beach community home, the ability to pass property on to descendants and younger generations was curtailed. Due to anti-Black economic sabotage, housing discrimination, and eminent domain, Black wealth-building diminished, making it less likely for future generations to purchase houses and develop businesses in Santa Monica. The dispossessed Black landowners never had their wealth realized, only stolen to become a source of prosperity for others.

Wherever we root ourselves, this country tries to uproot us, but the seeds we plant thrive and flourish.

In Santa Monica, as elsewhere, Black residents lived, worked, and found happiness in what the area had to offer, all the while fighting for civil rights, freedom, and equality. They were nomads escaping the Jim Crow South in search of freedom and a piece of their California dream.

Santa Monica has been a place where diverse people have made contributions of a lasting nature over time starting with the Tongva/Gabrielino people. Only time will tell if this trend will continue in the future.

— Alison Rose Jefferson