Commemorating a Surfing Pioneer

Several hundred people gathered on a stretch of beach in Santa Monica that was popular with African Americans in the first half of the 20th Century  to honor pioneering African American Latino surfer Nick Gabaldon. Called “the Inkwell” by some, it was a derogatory term referencing the “blackness” of the beach-goers’ skin color.

But the vestiges of that racism were long gone on the recent Saturday where children from the Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as anyone who signed up, took free surfing lessons and also learned about marine biology both on the shore and in the Heal the Bay aquarium. They were also treated to screenings of two documentary films, “White Wash,” a chronicle of black surfing and “12 Miles North,” a film about Nick Gabaldon.

Children were standing on surfboards for the first time, their shaky stances growing firm and confident as the morning progressed. Surfing for them was transformed from a seemingly exotic pursuit to something they actually could — and did do.

Why was the Second District partnering with the Westside organization Heal the Bay to stage an event at the beach? Because Nick Gabaldon Day is about seeing ourselves in new ways and removing the limits of place, race and geography. The Second District is actually a land-locked one, with no coastal communities. Inglewood, Compton, Lynwood, Watts and South Los Angeles aren’t typically associated with surf and sand. But the Beach Boys, who made Southern California surf culture world famous, are from the great city of Hawthorne in the Second District. The Western boundaries of the Second District are also just 15 blocks from Nick Gabaldon’s family home.

Decades ago, African-American families enjoyed swimming at the Inkwell, but racial restrictions on coastal housing and recreational facilities such as public swimming pools and beaches severely limited the scope of water recreation in America. The consequences have been dire. Six out of 10 African American and Latino children do not know how to swim. That’s double the rate for white children, according to the USA Swimming Foundation. The drowning rate for black children is almost triple that of white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“NO LIMITS” is an important mantra in the surfing world. “NO LIMITS” also summed up the celebration. Nick Gabaldon Day was just an extension of our heritage as risk takers, boundary breakers and pioneers.

The event came together through a wonderful mix of old friends and new partners, including: Historian Alison Rose Jefferson, whose work on the Inkwell and African American surfers has been significant and Heal the Bay, who has worked to preserve our coastal resources for the benefit those who live miles from the ocean, the Black Surfers Collective and the Surf Bus Foundation were models of servant-leadership. “White Wash” director Ted Woods got in the water with the kids. Rick Blocker, a one-man repository of black surfing history, which you can discover at his website, was also a guiding force in the event.

Blocker also commissioned a portrait of Nick Gabaldon unveiled that day. The portrait was painted by Richard Wyatt, who has celebrated our rich diversity in his works, many of which are public art murals throughout Los Angeles. His work is displayed at the Watts Towers Arts Center and the Capitol Records building.

So, in the spirit of Nick Gabaldon Day, don’t be afraid to catch a wave. Perhaps more importantly, don’t be afraid to make waves!