The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black Americans have deep ties to the Pacific — but they’ve been erased

Popular lore of the Pacific Ocean, like so much of Western history, ignores Black Americans

Bruce's Beach was busy in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on Nov. 14, 2021. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)
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In January, Marcus and Derrick Bruce sold their family’s beachfront land to Los Angeles County for nearly $20 million. The sale of the property — located on the ancestral land of the Gabrielino-Tongva people — is a remarkable development in a nearly 100-year saga in which the city of Manhattan Beach snatched land from Black property owners, including Willa and Charles Bruce (Marcus and Derrick’s great-grandparents).

This land grab destroyed a burgeoning African American vacation spot and thwarted the ability for Black landholders to build generational wealth. In 2022, county officials returned the Bruces’ oceanfront property — the first time any government in the United States has returned land wrongfully taken from a Black family. And now, through the recent sale, the Bruce family is at last able to benefit from the extraordinary value of their Pacific Coast land.

This story is important because of the spotlight it shines on the long history of land dispossession that has taken away crucial resources from communities of color in America and deprived them of the generational wealth Whites enjoy.

But the history of the Bruce land also highlights how Black Americans have a deep connection to the Pacific Ocean — one often erased from popular culture. Cultural tales about the Pacific that center on Black experiences are not only part of regional histories. They also help us better understand ideas of Black identity and belonging in the American West.

As early as the 16th century, people of African descent — free and enslaved — traversed Pacific waters. Much of this nautical activity occurred during the early colonial period, when Black conquistadors joined Spanish and Portuguese expeditions in the Americas, and Africans crossed the oceans both as voluntary participants and as unfree labor. For instance, in the late-16th century, an Afro-Portuguese mariner named Lope Martín became the first navigator to sail from the Americas to Asia and back.

Yet many of us have never heard of Black explorers like Martín even though, as historian Andrés Reséndez argues, he did for the Pacific “what Columbus had done for the Atlantic.” Despite popular accounts focusing almost entirely on White seafarers, the maritime trades were one of the most integrated industries in the Americas, especially after the 17th century. In fact, by the early-19th century, Black mariners made up nearly 20 percent of this multicultural workforce.

Life at sea presented a suite of benefits to Black mariners, including mobility, cultural exposure, a chance at freedom — albeit, precarious — and the prize of possibility.

At times, these sailors forged new futures for themselves in Pacific locations. One Black sailor, Anthony Allen, settled in Hawai’i in 1810 where he was an adviser to King Kamehameha I and acquired six acres of land on the shores of Waikiki. Another Black mariner, Allen Light, chose a future in Mexican California, settling in San Diego in the 1840s before the Mexican American War. He became a naturalized citizen of Mexico, patrolled the coast against poachers and opened a saloon and dry goods store with another Black emigrant, Richard Freeman.

But experiences for Black mariners upon the Pacific varied widely. Black sailors pulling into ports in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-19th century often faced discrimination meant to keep them out. Oregon territorial laws in effect by 1849 prohibited Black sailors from leaving their docked vessels without written permission or supervision.

Despite barriers and uncertainties, Black mariners continued to take to the sea. In whaling — still a thriving industry in the Pacific in the mid-19th century — men of color represented 20 to 30 percent of the workforce, and Black whalers navigated Pacific, and even Arctic, waters to become some of the first U.S. residents to reach Alaska.

Among these Black whalers was William Thomas Shorey, a captain on the West Coast in 1885. He married Julia Ann Shelton, an accomplished woman who hailed from a prominent Black San Francisco family, and together they sailed to Mexico and Hawai’i for their honeymoon where Mrs. Shorey, a nature enthusiast, was enthralled by the sight of an erupting volcano. Later, Captain Shorey sailed with their children often enough for their mother to describe her young daughter Victoria as “a remarkable sailor [who] knows all the ropes.”

In the 20th century, the relationship between Black Americans and the Pacific changed. U.S. military service began to play a greater role. From 1899 through the 1910s, all-Black army regiments — known as the Buffalo Soldiers — traveled by sea to serve in posts in the Philippines, Alaska, Hawai’i and Washington state. This pattern would continue during World War II, when more than a million African Americans served in the U.S. military, many in the Pacific theater. This included Black nurses, who traveled across the Pacific, serving in places such as Australia and New Guinea, and Pearl Harbor survivor Doris “Dorie” Miller who, in 1942, received the Navy Cross for valor.

On the World War II home front, Black Americans worked all along the Pacific Coast, where they helped construct liberty ships, served as merchant mariners and longshoremen, and fought for labor rights that benefited all industry workers. Indeed, wartime industries in the West attracted thousands of Black migrants, many from the American South, including Annie Small, who left Shreveport, La., for a job opportunity on the California coast. She was so determined to reach a shipyard in Marin City near San Francisco, that she rode a crowded train without a seat — sitting on her suitcase the entire trip.

The Pacific was not simply a source of employment for Black Americans. Many African Americans living along the Pacific Coast navigated racial bigotry and segregation to preserve connections to other forms of ocean culture and leisure activities, including fishing, pleasure boating and surfing.

Nick Gabaldón, an athlete of mixed Black and Mexican descent, is widely considered the first documented African American surfer. He taught himself to surf in “Inkwell Beach,” a strip of land along the Santa Monica coast open to Black beachgoers in the mid-20th century, at a time when they were often harassed at other Southern California beaches.

Engaging in these leisure activities was about more than frivolity. As historian Alison Rose Jefferson has explained: “The ability to choose how and where we spend our free time in many ways lies at the heart of what we understand ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ to mean.” In other words, by enjoying all that the Pacific Ocean offered, Black Americans were claiming the very promise — and testing the constraints — of America and the West.

Black histories like these are often absent both from popular understandings of Western history, as well as cultural representations of the Pacific Ocean and its beaches. But they are crucial to include, because this rich history is a living one — Black folks continue to live, work and play upon the Pacific. And including these stories in popular conceptions of the U.S. Pacific is integral to better understanding the complex histories of migration, innovation, conflict and race that define the American West.

To fully appreciate the true meaning of the Pacific for our past and future, it’s critical to recognize this ocean’s connections to the experiences of Black people.

This essay is the second in the Black Western Conversations series sponsored by the Clara Luper Department of African & African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, highlighting diverse regional histories within the United States.