Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era by Alison Rose Jefferson

University of Nebraska Press

Review by Brian Tanguay

History is a curious thing, sometimes all around us and unavoidable and at other times hidden from view, obscured by time and the passing of people who lived the moments. History is also a choice made by the dominant culture of who and what to emphasize, and for what reasons, causes, and customs. Whose story is allowed to stand as definitive is a choice, made by people in the moment and after. What and who to include or exclude, highlight or obscure, notice or dismiss, memorialize or erase. 

Telling a fuller, richer, more complete and inclusive story is the work of historians. In some cases, the work is akin to archeology, requiring slow, painstaking and dusty excavation, a deep and prolonged dive into archives, yellowed newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, maps, photographs, and the dry minutes of commission or council meetings. It’s about finding the story in a mess of material, sorting it, and breathing life into it.

Until a few months ago when I saw a news story about it, I had no idea that a place called Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, California, ever existed. I confess to being unaware of the histories of many beaches closer to my California zip code, so perhaps it’s not unusual that I knew nothing about Bruce’s Beach.

Because the story held no context for me, it made no connection.

Until, that is, I discovered Alison Rose Jefferson and began reading her outstanding labor of devotion, Living the California Dream. The second chapter is about Bruce’s Beach and the Black people who tried to claim a piece of the California Dream for themselves by building a resort, a refuge, a space on which they could enjoy and share with friends, family and business acquaintances, the same pleasures as white citizens. It was an effort that could not have been attempted with any success or safety in the Jim Crow South from which some of the people involved in the project originally came. But this was California in the early twentieth-century, a new place, wide open, stunningly beautiful, with opportunities as plentiful as the acres of lemon and orange groves. 

Was there racism? Of course. Against Blacks, Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese — anyone easily identified as an Other — but California wasn’t the South where law and custom specifically prohibited Black people from enjoying the same rights and privileges as white people. As Jefferson shows, in words and some wonderful photographs, Black people had the same aspirations as their white counterparts: to enjoy the fruits of their labor when and where they chose. 

What’s remarkable and telling about the people and places that Jefferson shines an overdue light on, from Bruce’s Beach to the shores of Lake Elsinore and the Parkridge Country Club in Corona, is the industry and ingenuity Blacks demonstrated in asserting their right to the leisure activities a rising standard of living provides. This generation of Black people had shrugged off and cast aside the inferiority complex falsely imposed on them over centuries, the bizarre notion that Blacks were all similar, shiftless, lazy, docile, prone to crime and sexual deviance. No, these were industrious, aspiring people, possessed of the same drive and determination that built thriving Black communities in Wilmington, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and along Central Avenue in Los Angeles. They had vision and, when the inevitable white backlash materialized, perseverance. They learned the game of investing and buying real estate, developing projects on a large scale, operating myriad commercial enterprises, striking deals, making contracts, and petitioning local government when required. 

This book reclaims knowledge. This book is a timely reminder that many hands built California, perpetuated its myth and legend as a western paradise, and those hands were not all white. This book brings Black people into the California story, raises them from obscure footnotes to important roles worth remembering, acknowledging, and memorializing.