Re-centering Los Angeles’s Beach Histories from the Jim Crow era to Contemporary Beach Reparations

Thursday, April 20, 2023, 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: African American; Latino/a; Local and Community History


In spring 2020, as US states were imposing the first lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the closures of Southern California’s beloved beaches caused a stir. “Every Californian has an unalienable right to a day at the beach,” one political columnist wrote on April 30. “Going to the beach is our birthright as native Californians, […] it’s our gift from the Creator—a trade-off for all the quakes, wildfires, mudslides and smog.” A year later, Southern California beaches again made headlines when Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that authorized return of Bruce’s Beach, a stretch of Pacific Ocean frontage in Manhattan Beach, to the descendants of its rightful owners, African-American entrepreneurs Willa and Charles Bruce. A few years before, in 2017, a frightening study conducted at the US Geological survey had also put the coastline in the spotlight: Southern California could lose up to two-thirds of its beaches by 2100, the study warned, if greenhouse gases continue to be emitted at current levels. Far from anecdotal to the march of times, Southern California beaches have been central to the multiple crises that have beset the US in recent years. They are on the frontline of the climate crisis as sea-level rise continues to threaten human habitations, an essential public place at a time of widening social and racial inequalities, and much-coveted pieces of real estate whose past stories of ownership need to be fully recovered for social justice to be made. By re-centering Los Angeles’s beach histories, from the Jim Crow era to contemporary “beach reparations” and the climate crisis, this panel will seek to understand the environmental, social, cultural, and legal factors behind the current intense focus on the coastline. It will showcase current research and public history activities related to the Southern coastline. Alison Rose Jefferson will present her work on the overlooked stories of African America contestation and pleasure at Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach oceanfront areas during the Jim Crow era and the impacts of these stories on our lives today for equity and social justice. Elsa Devienne will investigate the recent history of Los Angeles’s Beaches from the 1970s until the present day. Sara Fingal will explore how Latinx communities have valued and fought for their access to beaches in the San Pedro area of Los Angeles in the last half of the twentieth century. Daniel Diaz will discuss a Black history beach culture K12 curriculum collaboration between teachers and historians for students and why more of these collaborations need to occur.

Papers Presented

Commemorative Justice and the Re-centering of the African American Experience in Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach, CA Heritage Conservation

In my presentation I will discuss the overlooked stories in the “collective memory” of Southern California beach culture heritage in Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach. Highlighted will be stories of African Americans who faced discrimination and their contestation responses during the Jim Crow era, along with innovative public programming forged in new partnerships with colleagues in ocean stewardship, the history industry, local government and ocean aquatics that are facilitating pathways to broader audiences connecting to these more diverse stories of our collective history and heritage. In their leisure making practices African Americans made history, before and after, racial restriction attempts on California’s public beaches were abandoned in 1927. These local stories contribute to the national narrative of mass movement that illustrates how the struggle for leisure and public space also reshaped the freedom rights struggle. My presentation will feature some material from my recent book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, which presents new directions in Black Western Studies and ways history public programming is being used to empower people with useful knowledge to be a force for civic engagement, justice and equality, while facilitating individual and community pride.

Presented By
Alison Rose Jefferson, Historian and More

Beyond Baywatch: Los Angeles’s Beaches in a time of Crisis (1970s-2020)

In the 1990s, just as Southern California was sinking under the weight of high unemployment, natural disasters, and a racial riot, the TV-show Baywatch introduced the lives of L.A. lifeguards to the world, scoring record-high ratings. As a world-wide phenomenon, the series further established the LA coastline’s reputation as an iconic site where Hollywood’s most beautiful people come to enjoy pristine sand and awe-inspiring sunsets. Yet not only did the series continue the century-long tradition of whitewashing Southern California beach culture in the media, but it also elided, or at least glossed over, the multiple crises besetting the coastline, including erosion, ocean pollution, encroaching urbanization, rampant privatization, and drastic budget cuts threatening beach maintenance and supervision. Today, those crises have only gotten more serious, with the added concern that rising sea-levels, due to climate change, might lead to the erosion of up to 2/3 of the region’s sandy beaches. In this paper, I will go “beyond Baywatch,” to examine the recent history of this iconic landscape and favorite place of recreation. More specifically, I will highlight the tension between the beaches’ persistent popularity in western imaginaries and the many threats plaguing the coastline. As recent heat waves and the covid pandemic have made clear, public beaches have a crucial role to play as spaces where cool air, nature, and recreation can all be enjoyed for free. The question remains, however, whether Angelenos will still have beaches to enjoy by the end of this century and who will be guaranteed access.

Presented By
Elsa Devienne, Northumbria University (UK)

Fighting Against Beach Segregation in the Los Angeles Harbor, 1968-1979

On the cusp of the Port of Los Angeles, generations of Angelenos have visited the aquarium and shoreline at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California. Visitors are most likely unaware that this was a highly contested landscape that community organizers fought to preserve as a public resource. In 1968, the Harbor Department revealed a plan to replace the beach with a yacht marina. Led by a Chicana social worker named Pat Herrera, local objections not only stemmed from their fair housing activism, but also the importance of the place for cultural practices of picnics, beachgoing, swimming, and other activities for Latinx and African American beachgoers. Moreover, the new yacht marina would have displaced the Cabrillo Beach Aquarium. The Native-Mexican American director, John Olguin, had grown up in San Pedro and had a passion for ocean recreation and a talent for teaching children about marine life. Olguin became a well-regarded leader and one of the most well-known residents in San Pedro. The loss of access to the placid waters for recreation and the local aquarium struck a chord with locals who viewed the shoreline redevelopment project as another way to distance people of color from the shoreline. Historian Michael Innis-Jiménez writes that shoreline facilities and parks in Chicago offered Latinxs access to spaces for “physical and psychological survival.” Building on the lasting importance of these landscapes, this paper will explore how communities have valued and fought for their access to beaches in Los Angeles.

Presented By
Sara Fingal, California State University, Fullerton

The Belmar History + Art Project: A Case Study of a K16 Collaboration

In 2021 a set of lesson plans exploring the Jim Crow era, African American experience in the history of Santa Monica, California’s south beach neighborhood were published by the City funded Belmar History + Art project and the University of California, Los Angeles History-Geography Project. These lessons were written by K-12 public school teachers in collaboration with historian Alison Rose Jefferson. This unique collaboration offers insights into the ways that history educators across the “K-16 Continuum” can collaborate in ways that benefit the history teacher, the historian, and most importantly students in K-12 classrooms. In this presentation I will detail the curriculum that was created for this collaboration and explain why more of these collaborations are needed.

Presented By
Danny Diaz, University of California Los Angeles

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jeremiah B. C. Axelrod, Institute for the Study of Los Angeles
Dr. Axelrod is Adjunct Professor of History, Art History, Urban & Environmental Studies, and Cultural Studies at Occidental College, as well as founding director of the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles. Before arriving at Occidental in 2005, he taught several years in the Film Studies and History Departments at UC Irvine and served as Kevin Starr Fellow in California Studies at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. He received his Ph.D. in American History (with graduate certificates in Critical Theory, Feminist Studies, and Film Studies) from the University of California, Irvine, in 2001 after having graduated cum laude from Williams College in 1992, where he majored in History, Political Science (with Highest Honors), and Women’s Studies.

Professor Axelrod is the author of Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles, published by the University of California Press in 2009, as well as several articles and book chapters. His research generally probes the connections between visuality, urban topography, memory, gender, race, and transportation in twentieth century urban environments, with an emphasis on Southern California. He has presented more than sixty formal papers at academic and public policy conferences around the world and is a board member of the Historical Society of Southern California, the Lummis Day Community Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Executive Committee for the Historic Southwest Museum Site. Born in Hollywood, “Jem" Axelrod grew up primarily in Riverside, California, and now lives with his wife, Lil Gomez Delcampo, and their twin daughters, Amalia and Sophie, in Pasadena.

Presenter: Elsa Devienne, Northumbria University (UK)
Elsa Devienne is lecturer (equivalent of Assistant Professor) in US history at Northumbria University in the UK. Her research lies at the intersection of urban history, environmental history, and the history of gender, body, and sexuality, with a focus on the 20th century. She is particularly interested in the history of Americans’ intense engagement with their coastlines, from the 19th-century beach-bathing boom until today’s climate crisis and its catastrophic consequences for coastal communities. Her first book, published in French with the title The Sand Rush: An Environmental History of the Los Angeles’s Beaches (Sorbonne Editions, 2020), won the 2021 Willi Paul Adams Award awarded by the Organization of American Historians for the best book on American history published in a language other than English. The book is currently under contract with Oxford University Press for its English version. She is also the author of several articles published in academic journals in the US and Europe, including in The Journal of Urban History, The European Journal of American Studies, California History, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire and Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales. Her article “The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s-1980s,” published in The Southern California Quarterly was awarded the 2019 Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Award by the Historical Society of Southern California. Prior to living and working in the UK, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities at Princeton University and an Assistant Professor in American History and American studies at Université Paris Nanterre in France. She holds a PhD in history from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris).

Presenter: Danny Diaz, University of California Los Angeles
Danny Diaz is the Director of University of California, Los Angeles History-Geography Project and a former high school history teacher. He is also the former director of Project Deviate, Inc., a non-profit he founded to support foster youth in the San Gabriel Valley. As Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project, Danny provides professional development opportunities, workshops, and institutes for K-12 history-social science and ethnic studies teachers that emphasize local history and are guided by social justice and cultural responsiveness. Danny’s research interests include the impact of local history on student engagement, the K16 continuum, and how to best support history teachers new to ethnic studies.

Presenter: Sara Fingal, California State University, Fullerton
Sara Fingal is an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She received her MA and PhD in history from Brown University. Her work is concentrated on North American environmental history, U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Latinx communities and environment, and contested public spaces and land ownership in rural and urban settings. She has received research fellowships from the Huntington Library, the Historical Society of Southern California, and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). In 2018, she published “Your House es Mi Casa: American Homebuyers in the Baja California Borderlands, 1964-1989” in Western Historical Quarterly. Currently, her book manuscript is under review with the University of Washington Press entitled, A Right to the Beach: Battles for California’s Coast and Making Postwar Environmentalism. Her project analyzes conflicts over public access along coastlines from Northern California to Baja California, Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s.

Panelist: Alison Rose Jefferson, Historian and More
Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson is an independent historian, heritage conservation consultant and a third generation Californian. Dr. Jefferson is a 2021-22 Getty Conservation Institute Scholar in Residence where she is doing research on the historical African American experiences and public policies to conserve it in the California coastal zone district of Los Angeles’ Venice area. Her recently finished Applied History projects draw on her research of Southern California locales that feature historical significance as well as contemporary consequence to elucidate the African American experience during the Jim Crow era for Santa Monica’s Belmar History + Art project and the Angels Walk LA Central Avenue heritage trail. She was a 2021 Scholar in Residence with the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles at Occidental College where she in virtual campus and public programs shared her work of re-centering the African American experience in local history, heritage conservation efforts and the American identity. Her recent book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era (University of Nebraska Press) was honored with the 2020 Miriam Matthews Ethnic History Award by the Los Angeles City Historical Society for its exceptional contributions to the greater understanding and awareness of regional history. Her work has garnered attention in KCET-LA programming, the Los Angeles, The New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde newspapers, CBS TV 60 Minutes+ news program and other media. Learn more about Dr. Jefferson’s work at