The 1920s were a time of strict segregation in Los Angeles, when racial covenants kept black people out of most neighborhoods and excluded them from public pools and beaches. Seeking recreational space of their own, the black community created Val Verde, a little resort town in the San Martinez canyon above where Magic Mountain sits today. The retreat was just 45 miles from downtown L.A., but it was worlds away from the oppressive restrictions of society. Once known as “the Black Palm Springs,” it thrived from the 1920s into the early 1960s. You won’t find Val Verde on many maps made before the ’60s, but if you look close enough at this 1947 topographic, you’ll see the little town with its park and pool that were the center of fun for the families who visited.
Though a lamentable testament to the evils of segregation, Val Verde came as a blessing, providing an escape from the racism that prevailed in Southern California. Seeing the need for leisure spaces accessible to the African-American community, prominent black pioneers stepped up to the plate. Sidney Dones and Joel Bass spearheaded the creation of Val Verde, along with Laura Jones and community leaders like Norman O. Houston of Golden State Insurance and newspaperwoman Charlotta Bass of the California Eagle. They purchased 30 acres of an old Mexican mining town called Val Verde, named the place Eureka Villa, and created a space where black families could picnic and play in the clean air.
Similar endeavors closer to the city, like Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, had met with resistance. Pacific Beach Club, a resort for African-Americans near Huntington Beach, was burned to the ground before it could even open. But due to its remote location, Eureka Villa quickly became a place where people of color could relax away from discrimination. It became an independent township in 1928 and returned to the old name of Val Verde. In 1939, Henry Waterman donated 50 acres for parkland, and with a WPA grant of $39,000, residents built a pool, a club house, and a nice park. A crowd in the thousands—including movie stars Hattie McDaniels and Louise Beavers—showed up on Labor Day in 1947 for the inauguration of the new amenities. The setup included picnic facilities, ball fields, art galleries, theaters, and hiking and horseback riding in the nearby hills.
Many visitors from Los Angeles bought property and built homes in the area; actor James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) even purchased an eight-acre spread up on Rainbow Drive. The big events at the resort were the Fourth of July celebrations and the Miss Val Verde pageants (contestants might go on to grace a centerfold of Jet magazine). Photographer Frank D. Godden documented much of the good life in Val Verde.
When the Civil Rights Movement took off and segregation was declared illegal, former Val Verde visitors found other places to vacation in the newly integrated Southland. Val Verde’s time as a flourishing resort slowly faded into the rearview mirror of golden memories, never to be forgotten by many Angelenos still living today.
Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.