It was the summer of 1925, and the Lake Shore Beach Club on Lake Elsinore in Riverside County was alive with the buzz of happy vacationers. “Everyone would hang out at the lake for picnics, swimming and some boating. It was like paradise to go out on the lake,” California native Milton Anderson recalled. At night guests would have supper at the dining pavilion and would dance to the sound of live bands. After a full day of summer fun, guests would sleep in wood frame tents or cabins before their journey back to Los Angeles in communal shuttles.
Once home, these black Californians were far from paradise, facing the daily injustices of life in Jim Crow-era America.
Historian Alison Rose Jefferson, author of the fascinating new book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era, has a personal connection to the black resort communities that thrived on Lake Elsinore for decades. “My mother’s family used to go there when she was growing up and I heard stories,” she says. “They would go there for a few weeks in the summer and they bought a couple of lots there, but they never built anything on it.”
Jefferson would go to Lake Elsinore only one time with her extended family, but this memorable trip, and the recollections of her elders, would set her on a years-long journey of research and discovery. In Living the California Dream, she documents the history of a long-overlooked network of African American leisure and recreation sites that flourished in SoCal from the 1910s to the 1950s. Along the way she uncovered stories of courage, community, and camaraderie in the California sun.
For courage look no further than Willa Bruce, who in 1912 bought oceanfront property between 26th and 27th Streets in the small village of Manhattan Beach. There, she and her husband opened what came to be known as “Bruce’s Beach,” a resort which would eventually include a snack stand, a bathhouse, and dance floor.
“Mrs. Bruce was amazing,” Jefferson says. “She bought that property down there in Manhattan Beach. And that was a long way then because you were still in the early days of the car. To get down there, you would have been initially going by public transportation- the streetcar, the train, or by horse and wagon. And she was determined to have this place. And she was harassed from day one after white people realized that she had bought the land. Within the first week of them opening, there was a story in the Los Angeles Times…about this little black resort in Manhattan Beach… And she said in the article that she knew her rights and that she was not going to be deterred from continuing to have her business.”
The Bruces’ business flourished, and other black families built vacation homes in the area. However, harassment—which included mysterious fires, ticketing swimmers, and roping off the beach—intensified throughout the 1920s. In 1927, the city of Manhattan took control of the land to build a public playground, and Bruce’s Beach was no more.
To Jefferson, this story perfectly illustrates that black Californians were fighting for more than the right to have a good time.
“African Americans were all over the place in terms of California…they were pursuing everything that everybody else was pursuing within the confines of the barrage of racial oppression that they sometimes would be experiencing because of the times,” Jefferson says. “They were developing various business practices around leisure just like everybody else was. They were trying to enjoy these experiences as well in these different picturesque areas and trying to have self-fulfillment and better opportunities for themselves. And these were also ways of fighting for freedom in terms of the struggle during this time period. Leisure was not an add-on in terms of civil rights—it was an essential component of civil rights and liberty.”
With the increasing enforcement of civil rights laws in the 1950s and ’60s, black-owned leisure sites would virtually disappear, as African Americans had increasing number of options and black-owned businesses could not expand their base. “They couldn’t get the broader business in terms of the full range of society,” Jefferson says. “So, there was this economic detour right as that occurred.”
One of these forgotten areas was in the neighborhood of Ocean Park in Santa Monica (particularly around the Civic Center), which featured a popular stretch of beach called “The Inkwell.” For Jefferson, this is the spot she wishes she could have visited in its heyday.
“Oh, the beach! I love going to the beach,” she laughs. “I’m a Californian!”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Follow us on Facebook.