An Interview with Alison Rose Jefferson

By Brian Tanguay


When Alison Rose Jefferson was a graduate student at USC she studied under the late Kevin Starr, probably the best known historian of California. Like Starr’s, Jefferson’s family has deep roots in California. When Jefferson presented her proposal for a paper about the places where African Americans sought leisure activities, Starr was supportive; this was history even he was unaware of. Jefferson went on to spend nearly sixteen years researching and writing, earning a Master’s and a Ph.D along the way. Her book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, which I recently reviewed, is the culmination of her work. 

In general, Jefferson told me when we spoke by phone on Valentine’s Day, history has been told through a narrow lens. But during the past thirty or so years, a shift has happened and more academic scholars, historians and journalists are focusing on lesser known history, local history, and stories of the marginalized or forgotten. This effort has raised public awareness of people and events that had been ignored, deemed unimportant or dismissed as “ancient history.” 

The small African American community which existed at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County since the town’s founding in the late 1880s is a case in point that Jefferson explores in her book. After the heyday, as a child, Jefferson visited Lake Elsinore with her family. 

The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

BT: I’ll start by saying that you did some amazing digging to bring this book to fruition.

ARJ: Well, I had to because all of the information wasn’t in one place. I did a lot of interviews and oral histories, including with my own uncles and digging in many different information repositories. One of the last people I collected information from recently passed away at the age of 96. His mother visited Lake Elsinore in the 1920s and 1930s. That man was the source for some of the photographs included in the book.  

BT: While it’s not a central concern of your book, the influence of Pullman porters was interesting. 

ARJ: Yes, Pullman porters were an important part of the informal information network for Black people. They relayed stories about the possibilities and opportunities available in the American West. 

BT: But white people weren’t always welcoming, particularly in places like Manhattan Beach. 

ARJ: No, they could be obstructionist for sure and tried to make it as inconvenient as possible for people. They figured out legal ways to harass Black people, like limiting parking or calling the police to break up gatherings. They also proposed amended zoning ordinances. And then white folks up the coast in the Ocean Park neighborhood formed the Santa Monica Bay Protective League whose objective to eliminate anything deemed objectionable to the bay district was reported in the Los Angeles Times.

BT: A similar backlash happened in Corona with the formation of the Parkridge Protective Association.

ARJ: Yes. That resulted from a group of Black investors buying a large property from a white person with the intent of developing a resort. There were no Black people living in Corona at the time and white people were upset. They challenged the sale in court and lost. But ultimately the Black owners couldn’t make a go of it. 

BT: It was an audacious idea, though, wasn’t it? A Black country club community, built from the foundation up. 

ARJ: Absolutely, although I think their dreams were a little unrealistic. The Black population didn’t have the money to maintain a project like that. They didn’t get enough people to buy in. Getting to  Corona in the 1920s could take as long as half a day from Los Angeles. And generally speaking, going out there to have a look around required an overnight stay. 

BT: What happened at the Pacific Beach Club in 1926?

ARJ: Black folks in Huntington Beach built a beautiful beach club in collaboration with a white partner. But white folks didn’t want the club and someone burned the place to the ground. There was no municipal water hookup at the time, so once the fire started there was no way to stop it. No arrests were ever made. It’s not known to this day who was responsible. 

Additional information about Alison Rose Jefferson and her work is available on her website: