Surf lessons. Photo by Alison Rose Jefferson. Via the Santa Monica Conservancy.

On Saturday, June 3, the Santa Monica Conservancy will celebrate Nick Gabaldón Day in commemoration of the Santa Monica resident who is known as L.A.’s first documented surfer of African-American and Latino descent.

The celebration will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Tower 20 (Bay Street and Ocean Front Walk), formerly the location of “Inkwell Beach” — the only section of the beach along Santa Monica Bay that African-Americans were allowed to use during the first half of the 20th century — where in the 1940s Gabaldón learned to surf.

“This year, as part of the Santa Monica Conservancy’s pilot youth program, we will host students from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation Center in Los Angeles. The youth program focuses on heritage and nature education while exploring Santa Monica,” according to the Conservancy’s website.

Little is known about Gabaldón’s short life — he died in a surfing accident in 1951 at the age of 21. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica’s Pico Neighborhood and is one of several famous people featured in the city’s “Living History” tour offered to visitors to the city-owned cemetery.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a young Gabaldón, who didn’t have a car, would hitchhike from his home in Santa Monica to prime surf spots in Malibu. And sometimes, he would paddle from “Inkwell Beach” the full 12 miles to Malibu when he couldn’t catch a ride.

Today, the the belief that California’s beaches should be accessible to all is enshrined in state law by the 1976 California Coastal Act.

But Gabaldón’s story illustrates a time, not so long ago, where African-Americans were explicitly barred from almost all of the beach.

“During the 1920s, Inkwell was an oasis for African American beachgoers — the only part of the sand they were allowed to set foot on, except, briefly, for a small section of Manhattan Beach. The 200-foot-long roped-off area at the foot of Pico Boulevard was marked ‘for Negroes only.’ Although racial restrictions on public beaches were invalidated by the courts in 1927 and generally disappeared by the 1930s, blacks continued to call Inkwell their own through the early 1950s,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The same story in the L.A. Times explains that origin of “Inkwell Beach” came about after an African-American family was booted from the “whites only” section of the beach in 1920 during Memorial Day festivities.

“The incident prompted blacks to claim their own sliver of public beach near the Crystal Plunge, a former open-air swimming pool that had been destroyed by a flood in 1905, then abandoned. The area was a polluted, debris-filled spot that no one else wanted. Around 1922, it became known as Inkwell Beach,” according to the L.A. Times.

As part of the this Saturday’s celebration of Gabaldón’s life, there will be free surf lessons provided (advanced registration is required), and Alison Rose Jefferson, PhD, will be on hand to discuss Santa Monica history on the beach, according to the Conservancy’s website.

The Conservancy is also looking for volunteers to staff its information table at the event as well as provide information about our organization, tours, and events at the Preservation Resource Center. Email to sign up.

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