Alison Rose Jefferson is an independent scholar and heritage conservation consultant. She is also the author of the newly released Living the California Dream, African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era (January 2020). Meet Jefferson at Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles on Thursday, January 16 for a book signing beginning at 7:00 p.m.
My new book examines the local stories of African Americans who fought for equal access to California’s recreation and relaxation offerings as they contributed to the broader United States freedom rights struggle during the nation’s Jim Crow era (1900s to 1960s). Forming community and creating business projects at inland and oceanfront leisure places were not optional add-ons to civil rights, but essential components of liberty. As Southern California was reimagining leisure and positioning it at the center of the American Dream, African American Californians were working to make leisure an open, inclusive reality.
Through the research which led to writing this book, I learned a great deal about extraordinary community builders and socio-economic development experiences of black middle class people of Los Angeles and California—doctors, teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and strivers with other employment backgrounds—living their lives during the period of my study that I and many others were not aware of. This under recognized segment of the population, like other African Americans, grappled with the issues of their time in a period of profound social, political, and cultural transformation in the U.S. in the twentieth century. Members of this group seized their sense of cultural entitlement to articulate their California Dream in creation of African American spaces of relaxation and other activities, despite the unrelenting caustic barrage of oppression. As a third generation Afro Angeleno and a member of this segment of the population, I have been a beneficiary of their efforts in my lifetime.
My maternal grandparents, and their children born in Los Angeles, bore witness to this time in the elder family members’ decision to migrate to California from Montgomery, Alabama to begin new lives and start their own family in Los Angeles in 1925. Upon their arrival, my grandfather was one of the few black physicians in the city, and my grandmother had a teaching degree. Growing up, I heard stories from my mother, Marcelyn Cobbs Jefferson, about her life and her family members’ lives, and community experiences as pioneering African Americans in the city and California. Over the years antidotal stories about visits to one of the places I examine in the book, Lake Elsinore, emerged many times in my elder family members and their friends and associates telling of their history.
When I was a small child, three generations of my family went on, what I recall as one, grand outing to Lake Elsinore, just after the lake’s water refurbishment in 1964. Over the years hearing my elders’ remembrances combined with my own memory of my Lake Elsinore experience on this one day trip, planted the seeds of curiosity to learn more about their and other African Americans’ summer experiences at this place and other Southern California leisure destinations popular before I was born. This experience also planted the seeds to my journey of formal research and learning to share with the public, in many cases almost lost, knowledge about the African American experience in Los Angeles, California and the West. This book about the history and memory of the African American experience at Southern California relaxation and recreation destinations is one of the professional results and personal rewards of this knowledge reclamation journey.
To imagine and write the narratives of each site examined in this book, considerable historical reconstruction occurred to illuminate the stories of the African American experience which have been left out or marginalized in the telling of American history. There is a structured institutional nature to the sparseness and exclusion of sources and the dominant narrative that absents them. The availability of rare and scattered material culture sources in archives or personal collections such as photographs, ephemera, other documents, and in situ buildings, has been a significant factor influencing the extent of incorporation of these experiences. The scarcity and little institutional initiative to collect oral history and other accounts recalling the details of leisure practices or direct testimony of events at these places by African Americans who enjoyed them, have in many instances cast a veil of silence about the specific practices at these places. Further, this missing history has increased through multiple generations due to individuals of this community’s modesty or being accustomed to considering their lives inconsequential as history. In these Southern California towns, contemporary insertions aside, most local community histories have almost entirely omitted African American involvement, or have privileged some events over others that would not be the ones emphasized by the African American actors of the era or in the present.
These types of silences in sources, archives, making of narratives, and making of public history of the African American experience in the various Southern California communities, show how these inequities experienced has led to uneven historical power in the process of historical production. The expanded historical narratives about these sites in this book contribute to shaping, or in some instances recasting and reconstructing, the history and memory of African Americans whose voices have been silenced, marginalized, or overlooked in these communities and Southern California due to their relative lack of civic, political, and socio-economic power. To counteract the structural nature of the problem of the lack of inclusion of multiple voices in local history accounts by historical narrators and intransigent elites, who have participated in trivialization of and silenced the history of such groups as African Americans, continuous multi-front efforts will be required to recover and represent the history, and reclaim its place. Writing this book is one of my efforts to reconstruct, represent and reclaim to its rightful place the history of African Americans in Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, Lake Elsinore, Corona,and Val Verde, California.