Challenges to the Conservation of California’s African American Heritage

By Special Contributor posted 05-21-2014 09:33

  
By Alison Rose Jefferson

 Enjoying Malibu Surfing, Los Angeles County/California: (l to r) Ricky Grigg, unknown, Vicki Williams, and Nick Gabaldón (ca, 1940–1950). Photography | Courtesy of Vicki Williams/Photo by Joe Quigg
Enjoying Malibu surfing in Los Angeles County, California, 1940–1950. Photography | Courtesy of Vicki Williams/Photo by Joe Quigg
As a historic preservation consultant, public historian, civic activist, and third generation Californian of African American ancestry, I have been involved in several preservation projects aimed at broadening the national narrative and forging new partnerships to reach younger and wider audiences to connect them with new experiences and more culturally diverse stories of our shared, national heritage.

My work has focused on understanding the state of cultural inclusion in interpretation and the heritage conservation profession. I have participated in several heritage programming efforts including writing site documentation reports, landmark designation applications and articles; curating museum exhibits; conducting oral history interviews; researching commemorative local site designations; giving public lectures and interviews in documentary films; and other public event social action programming. I have viewed cultural inclusion, or not, in public practice.

These efforts have been rewarding and at the same time frustrating. Even with my success and the successes of some from the mainstream historic preservation community to promote cultural diversity, I concur with the assessments of Vince Michael and Raymond W. Rast in their essays, which appear in the spring issue of the Forum Journal. Along with these two authors, I believe that significant obstacles still remain toward efforts to recognize more historically important sites related to communities of color, and other economically, politically, or socially marginalized Americans.

The Bay Street African American Beach and Phillips Chapel CME

Two projects in Santa Monica, California, that I have been involved with—The Bay Street African American Beach and Phillips Chapel CME—shed some light on these obstacles. This beach, sometimes call the “Inkwell,” served as a gathering place for Los Angeles’ African Americans during the Jim Crow era (1900s–1960s). This beach was also the site where Nick Gabaldón, a Californian of African American and Mexican descent and a pioneering surfer, got his start. The derogatory name, the "Inkwell," came from Anglos referencing the skin color of the beachgoers who visited the area. Gabaldón and other Southern California African Americans, however, transformed the hateful moniker into a badge of pride.

 Commemorative Poster for Nick Gabaldón Day 2013.  | Poster designed by Ana Luisa Ahern of Heal the Bay from a photograph by “White Wash” documentary filmmaker Ted Woods
Commemorative poster for Nick Gabaldón Day 2013. | Poster designed by Ana Luisa Ahern of Heal the Bay from a photograph by “White Wash” documentary filmmaker Ted Woods
Today, the beach and the nearby Phillips Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal church, the first black church in Santa Monica, are locally recognized for cultural and social history significance, rather than architectural or natural aesthetics significance. The church, which was constructed in 1890s and remodeled in the 1940s, was designated a local historic landmark in 2005, opening the door for the beach to become a locally designated site three years later.

As part of my involvement, I created the text for the monument plaque marking the historic beach site, titled “The Inkwell: A Place of Celebration and Pain.” Through lectures and articles, media coverage, two documentary films and public activities at the site, such as tours and special exhibits, the public is slowly connecting with new experiences and learning more culturally inclusive stories of our shared, national heritage, and concern for our natural environment. Partners in these efforts have included Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Conservancy, the Black Surfers Collective, the California Historical Society, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

However, it has been a struggle to reinsert the history of African American beach culture into existing regional and national history and historic preservation discourses. I have experienced bureaucratic resistance, with pushback from government officials, members of the historic preservation community, and majority power brokers with ties to cultural programming, in my pursuit of accurate, appropriate narrative content for official public information dissemination and in outreach to these more culturally diverse community audiences. There is a misperception that African American history is separate history, and not part of the mainstream American narrative. My experience is not exceptional, as is illuminated in Michael’s and Rast’s essays.

Michael and Rast both suggest that adjusting criteria and standards for judging “integrity” and the inclusion of “intangible” heritage will be a great help to break down the significant obstacles still remaining in efforts to recognize more historically important sites related to communities of color, and other economically, politically, or socially marginalized Americans.

 Alison Rose Jefferson, public historian and a co-captain of the Bay Street/Inkwell CCD 2013 site talks to a group of people including members of Jack and Jill, an African American family organization about the banner exhibit on display she designed called, “Hidden Beach Stories & the California Dream: African Americans, Beach Culture, Santa Monica & the American Narrative.” | Photography courtesy of Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy
Alison Rose Jefferson explains a banner exhibit she designed called, “Hidden Beach Stories & the California Dream: African Americans, Beach Culture, Santa Monica & the American Narrative.” | Photography courtesy of Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy
By recognizing more places for cultural and social history significance rather than just architectural or natural aesthetics, it becomes possible to reclaim those places for a broader group of citizens. Those previously excluded from these sites will gain recognition as “stakeholders.”

Strategies may vary, but the heritage conservation movement should focus on keeping all the unique and irreplaceable pieces of our heritage intact for all people to enjoy. The movement must acknowledge that issues of race, diversity, and social justice are entwined with heritage. Inclusion of the language of injustice, discrimination, inequity, and racism in the multi-faceted heritage discussion recognizes the continuing struggle to totally dismantle these conditions, which continue to inhibit communities of color and others from full civic participation, human experiences, and civil society entitlements. For heritage sites and audiences to become more representative of the nation’s demographics, we need the staff, boards, volunteer leaders and members to better reflect the broader American society.

Alison Rose Jefferson is a public historian and historic preservation consultant finishing a doctorate in Public History/American History at University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of “African American Leisure Space In Santa Monica: The Beach Sometimes Known as the ‘Inkwell.’” Southern California Quarterly, 91/2 (Summer 2009). Her website, “Celebrating the California Dream: A Look at Forgotten Stories” is at www.alisonrosejefferson.com.

Sources and further reading:

  • Hayden, Delores. The Power of Place, Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997.
  • Kaufman, Ned. Place, Race, and Story, Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2009.
  • Kaufman, Ned. “Putting Intangible Heritage in its Place[s]: Proposals for Policy and Practice,” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 8 (2013): 21.
  • Meeks, Stephanie. “Sustaining The Future,” California Preservation Foundation Conference: Preservation on the Edge, Santa Monica, California, May 16, 2011.

Editors Note: This story is a web companion to the Spring 2014 issue of Forum Journal: Imagining a More Inclusive Preservation Program. Read more stories on diversity here.



#Diversity #Education #AfricanAmerican

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