Santa Monica tries to forget an “inky” past
It came as a surprise that Venice Beach born black amateur skateboarder, Blake Johnson had no idea who Nicholas Rolando Gabaldon was. Times have shifted a lot since Gabaldon was accredited with being one of the first black surfers of his era, and while his untimely death involved few, it affected many. “Times are changing,” said the Black Surfers Association's Rick Blocker. “The world has come together. This is one planet, and we are all one people now. Activities like surfing move the world to slowly overcome distinctions that people use to divide us.”
Earlier this year in February, Nike commissioned director Richard Yelland to turn Gabaldon’s tragic but inspirational story into a film. The documentary's title ‘12 Miles North’ referred to the 12-mile paddle that the surfer undertook from Santa Monica’s segregrated Inkwell beach, to the pier in Malibu. Through the use of Facebook and other social networks, Nike was able to draw an audience of vastly different demographics.
While there are different brands associated with different demographics, we are all considered one race now-a-days,” Johnson said. “We are skaters, and skating [like surfing] has become part of mainstream culture. I actually miss the days when skaters and surfers were the outcasts,” he added in reference to the late 1990s, when it wasn't as socially accepted to be a thrill-seeker.
Born Feb. 23, 1927, Gabaldon was described as a charismatic lovable fellow, who would not let the prejudiced society he belonged to tell him otherwise. He loved school, surfing and his country. In 1945 he served in the navy, aiding his country across seas to defeat one of the most infamous racists of all time, Adolf Hitler. A year later, Gabaldon would return home to the unconquerable hatred he left behind: segregated swimming pools, water fountains and beaches. In this battle, he would not be as triumphant.
The times of Jim Crow and the laws left in effect made the normal functions of life for a black person very difficult. Just as there were designated water fountains and bathrooms, The Inkwell was a 200 square-foot parcel of Santa Monica's coastline designated for “colored people.” Nestled between Bay St. and Bicknell Ave., the small section of beach was not only vulnerable to violent discrimination, but was also subordinate when it came to the best surf conditions.
Gabaldon discovered his passion by first engaging in simple body surfing, a practice of using your body as a beacon to shoot across tides. A true surfer would say that you must know the feel, taste, and sound of a wave before you can ride it.
The capricious ocean so very strong,
Robust, powerful; can I be wrong?
Pounding, beating upon its cousin shore,
Comes it clapping, rapping with a mighty roar.
The sea vindictive, with waves so high
For men to battle and still they die.
Many has it taken to its bowels below;
Without regard it thus does bestow
Its laurels to unwary men.
With riches taken from ships gone by,
Its wet song reaches to the sky
To claim its fallen man-made birds
And plunge them into depths below
With a nauseous surge.
Scores and scores have fallen prey
To the salt of animosity,
And many more will victims be
Of the capricious, vindictive sea.
O, avaricious ocean so very strong
Robust, powerful, I’m not wrong,
Pounding, beating upon your cousin shore.
Come you clapping, rapping with a might roar.
May 31, 1951
Santa Monica Evening Outlook
One week after Gabaldon submitted this poem to his SMC English professor, his elusive words would become actuality. Smashed between the pillars beneath the Malibu Pier, the young surfer died. He was just 24 years old.
In the 1940s, Santa Monica was segregated like much of America, and compared to a Coney Island type of get away for people from surrounding areas. Surfing was an emerging popular pastime among young white men, and they wanted their beaches kept “white.”
A determined Gabaldon caught wind of an amazing swell near the Malibu Pier, and stories of a “brotherhood of surfers” where skin color was outweighed by passion. With no other means of transportation, Gabaldon set off for Malibu in the only fashion he knew - he paddled out.
According to Rhonda Harper, the woman responsible for a lot of the film's research and proposing the city of Santa Monica to make a plaque in Gabaldon's honor, he was most likely accepted amongst the surfers in Malibu.
Through her efforts, Harper was successful in her proposition, and the city of Santa Monica unveiled the plaque on what was once a segregated parcel of beach on Feb. 7, 2008.
Times are different now, people are divided by subcultures and lifestyles, with an array of races intertwined. Interracial marriage is more prevalent, and while prejudices still largely exist, they are not part of popular culture.
This summer, go out and have fun. Reflect on all the things you take for granted, and remember no matter how bad things may seem at the moment, someone has probably endured worse in the past.
This story pays homage to a man's unfortunate death, but more importantly celebrates his courageous life. Gabaldon is buried across the street from SMC's naïve cultural melting pot of students at the Woodlawn cemetery, his story should not be forgotten.