Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Pacific Beach Club

Front page of the Santa Ana Register, Jan. 21, 1926.

The following article was originally published in 2011 in the journal Orange Countiana, Volume VII (Orange County Historical Society). But it began in 2005 when I stumbled across a small but surprising blurb about a "negro beach club" near Huntington Beach in a 1926 issue of the Santa Ana Register. Once I was aware of this lost bit of local history, I kept chipping away, doing original research, and gradually the story began to emerge. 

When I began, the only secondary sources I could find on the Pacific Beach Club were a few notes from historian Bob Johnson and brief mentions in Leo Friis’ Orange County Through Four Centuries and Samuel Meyer’s, Fifty Golden Years: The Story of Newport Beach. Since the publication of my article (and a series of lectures I gave afterward), I’ve been glad to see others pick up the story and, with additional research, provide further context and value. Sadly, others -- in the rich tradition of the Web -- just steal content directly without so much as a credit line. 

In posting this article online here, I have added additional images, and added or expanded a few lines of text where I now know more than I did ten years ago. I hope the forgotten story of the Pacific Beach Club becomes part of our cultural understanding of Orange County history and that the site of the Club will someday be widely recognized as historically significant.   -CLJ

Concept art of a completed Pacific Beach Club. Adapted by the author from promotional art in the March 20, 1925 California Eagle. 

The Rise and Fiery Fall of the Pacific Beach Club

Chris Jepsen

In the mid-1920s, a large, elegant, and controversial beach club, exclusively for black people, was built about a mile south of the Huntington Beach pier. If it were still standing today, it would be one of Orange County's most iconic structures. The club's turbulent story is one of hope, racism, dogged determination, and possibly fraud. Yet few Orange Countians today have heard of – much less know what became of – the Pacific Beach Club.

In the 1910s and 1920s, access to municipal pools and parks was extremely limited for anyone who wasn’t white, and their access to Los Angeles area beaches was nearly nonexistent. This exclusion was accomplished in various ways including local ordinances, privatization of beaches by white clubs, and by renting beaches to tenants who would enforce white-only rules. In some cases, white beach-goers would confront those crossing racial lines, and in many locations, police would roust blacks from the beach as undesirables. Violence was also employed, as it was in 1920, when three police officers assaulted a black family that refused to leave Santa Monica Beach. They threw a child aside and beat and shot the father.

 In 1912, Mrs. W.A. Bruce tried to improve the situation by opening a small stretch of coastline to blacks in northern Manhattan Beach – a spot that became known as Bruce's Beach. This small “resort” and its visitors immediately became the target of harassment by adjacent white property owners. Later, the Ku Klux Klan became involved and harassment escalated to terrorism. Bruce's Beach succumbed to the pressure and closed in 1924.

At the boundary of “The Inkwell" beach at Santa Monica, circa 1925. (Photo courtesy "Shades of L.A.: African American Community," Los Angeles Public Library)

Just below Venice Beach, in 1921, white real estate huckster A.C. Langan marketed a proposed black seaside retreat called Lincoln Beach. But the plans fell through, and Langan was soon led away in handcuffs for an unrelated embezzlement scam. 

In 1922, blacks tried to purchase a stretch of beach in Santa Monica for the purposes of building a clubhouse, bathhouse, and amusement center. But local business owners complained bitterly, and the city blocked the development. 

The following year, the City of Los Angeles agreed to lease 200 feet of beachfront near El Segundo to black businessman Titus Alexander for a similar project. But when word got out, a new “Beach Playground Protection Association” – a front for the Title Insurance & Trust Company – quickly drafted a referendum that successfully kept that portion of public beachfront from being privatized.   

In 1924, white residents forced the closure of Caldwell’s Hall, a dance hall for blacks, and took further steps to ban black people from living in Santa Monica or Ocean Park.

But 1924 also brought black Southern Californians a glimmer of hope with the founding of the resort town of Val Verde (sometimes called “the black Palm Springs”) in the Santa Clarita Valley. It was popular and so successful that it survived until the 1960s, when other vacation spots desegregated.

A family on an outing to Val Verde Park, 1927 (LA County Public Library)

Also in 1924, a tiny sliver of beach called the Inkwell opened to blacks at the end of Pico Blvd. But it was ridiculously small, and there was little reason to think it would last. In short, a beach getaway where black people could relax and enjoy the Pacific was long overdue. 

Surprisingly, it was a white attorney from Los Angeles, Halbert R. “Hal” Clark, who took on the challenge. On December 1, 1924, he purchased seven and a half acres of unincorporated beachfront property between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach from Col. S.H. Finley. From Los Angeles, the property could be reached via the new Coast Highway, or with a $1 trip on one of the Pacific Electric Railway’s “Red Cars.” Today, the rectangular parcel of land is part of Huntington State Beach, across Pacific Coast Highway from the Cabrillo Mobile Home Park, and just north of Newland Avenue.

Hal R. Clark, candidate for County Attorney, Montgomery Co., Kansas. (Coffeyville Daily Journal, July 29, 1908)

Hal Clark was born in Ohio in 1881. He lived in Kansas and Indiana before settling for good in Los Angeles with his wife, Carolyn, and his daughter, Evelyn. He was what you might call “ethically challenged.” In later years he was suspended by the State Bar for accepting cases from ambulance chasers, and was indicted by a Federal grand jury for selling oil drilling permits for land he didn't own. Yet he was resilient – or at least shameless. Only one week after being sentenced to probation for mail fraud in 1932, he spoke before the Women’s Political League as a candidate for State Assembly in the 59th District. He also went on to run, unsuccessfully, for the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1934 and 1945. 

Col. Finley, who sold Clark the beach property, was a three-term County Supervisor in Orange County’s First District. He was also the mayor of Santa Ana, the County Surveyor, a member of the Board of Education, and the founding Secretary of the Metropolitan Water District. Successful in real estate, he had been one of Philip A. Stanton’s key partners in purchasing and developing the land that became Huntington Beach. Why he sold land to Clark for a black beach club is unclear. However, it's worth noting that Finley had recently won re-election to the Board of Supervisors, defeating Bert A. Dawson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Within a few weeks of purchasing his beach property, Clark hired builder Charles E. Row of Long Beach for what was expected to be a $291,000 construction project. 

An item about the project in the prominent black Los Angeles newspaper, The California Eagle, declared: 

“The whites have for years enjoyed their clubs and organizations for the gathering of members for social and recreational enjoyment. We must now awake to the fact that if we are to provide ourselves with a portion of the Pacific NOW is the time – The past few years have seen the beaches entirely taken up by Clubs and subdivisions... There is at this time no place left on the Pacific near Los Angeles where we may congregate for any purpose.” 

Orange County’s beaches were not segregated by law or in practice, as they were in Los Angeles, said Robert A. Johnson, historian and co-author of A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers (2009). “In part, there just weren’t enough black people in Orange County to create an official policy. The idea of their own club would have appealed because it was the sort of thing whites had in places like Santa Monica. And it also would have given them a sense of security that they couldn’t be pushed out again.”

According to the Santa Ana Register, Clark's “Pacific Beach Club” was “not a proposition in which the colored people are investing their money, but is an amusement project fostered by Clark and his associates. The colored people have no direct interest in the project at the present time other than it is their plan to make the club an exclusive colored beach colony.”

That would soon change.

Club president E. Burton Ceruti (BlackPast.org)

While Clark was readying the property, the Pacific Beach Club itself was being formed by a group of prominent black Angelenos. Only members and their immediate families would be able to use the Club’s facilities. Life memberships were originally sold for $75 and Associate memberships for $50. However, the membership costs rose incrementally over time. It was planned that by the end of ten years, the membership fees would have paid for the Club’s facilities, and ownership would be transferred from Clark to the Club itself.

In 1925, the Club’s Board of Directors included some of Los Angeles’ best known black professionals:

  • President E. Burton Ceruti, an attorney
  • Vice President Dr. James T. Smith, a pharmacist.
  • Secretary Rev. William R. Carter, a Baptist minister.
  • Treasurer Dr. R.S. Whittaker, an Otolaryngologist.
  • Dr. Roberta “Batie” Cecelia Robinson, a physician.
The Eagle later identified other additions to the Board, including: 
  • Hon. Frederick Madison Roberts, California’s first black State Assemblyman. 
  • Dr. Albert Bauman, a pharmacist and future president of the L.A. Urban League.
  • Dr. Wilbur C. Gordon, a physician.
  • Dr. R.C. Orffut, (probably a misidentification of Dr. Georgia K. Offutt, a podiatrist).
  • Joseph Blackburn Bass, editor of the California Eagle, and husband of the newspaper’s influential publisher, Charlotta Bass.

Other prominent black leaders also supported the project, including H. Claude Hudson, president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

Pacific Beach Club president E. Burton Ceruti was particularly well known as a civil rights leader. He was a native of the Bahamas and was educated in New York before moving west and passing the California Bar in 1912. In Los Angeles, he became an attorney for the Colored People’s Protective League and took the lead in forming the local branch of the NAACP, for which he also provided legal counsel. He led the NAACP in numerous legal battles, including the fight to end racial discrimination by the Los Angeles County Hospital’s Training School for Nurses. He also fought to suppress D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorified and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.

Pacific Beach Club board member Joseph Blackburn Bass

The Pacific Beach Club’s leadership was impressive, and so were the proposed club facilities. The architecture of this complex of large, white stucco buildings was to be “Egyptian” – a popular theme in the 1920s, also seen in such landmarks as Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Handsome towers anchored the corners of each building and gave the complex a certain amount of grandeur.

Descriptions varied a bit from one promotional pamphlet or article to another, but most of the Club’s features seemed set from the beginning. One of the first buildings to be erected was the bathhouse, located on the eastern end of the Club’s land. When completed, it was to include showers and 2,000 lockers. There were also plans for a large recreation hall with a “spring floor” for 3,000 dancers, as well as a balcony for entertainers, a large roof garden, club rooms, fireplaces, lounging rooms, a radio room, an auditorium, and a stage with a capacity of 450 people. Also, a 100 foot by 100 foot clubhouse would be among the first buildings constructed. 

This, the only known photo of any of the Pacific Beach Club’s buildings, (identified as the Dance Pavilion,) appeared in The California Eagle as construction neared completion.

The Amusement Zone would feature all the concessions found at any beach resort – all owned by the members. All concessionaires and employees of the Club were to be black. A large campground with over 200 tents (with rents never to exceed $10 per week) would also be built on the grounds, as would a supervised children’s playground.

The entire property would be surrounded by a white stucco wall, which would be “a replica of a prominent movie studio at Culver City” (probably MGM). Members’ cars would be kept inside the fenced grounds in an attended parking lot. Security was clearly a major consideration.

One illustration of the club optimistically depicted its own covered depot on the adjacent Pacific Electric trolley line. A building to house a restaurant, drug store, grocery store, and more was to be added by the end of 1925. 

The Pacific Beach Sales Organization had their offices in the YWCA Building, on 12th Street in Los Angeles, where a Mr. Peace offered a sales pitch to prospective members twice daily. 

As the groundbreaking approached, Ceruti said, “The Pacific Beach Club is no longer a proposition: It is an established fact.” Perhaps as much to settle the nerves of local residents as to attract new members, board member Rev. William R. Carter added, “The Constitution and by-laws of the Pacific Beach Club are so constituted that they eliminate the possibility of undesirables among the membership.”

Indeed, the “negro beach colony” project was watched with concern from adjacent and predominantly white communities. 

“Announcement of the plans … to establish a colony on the beach caused strenuous protests on the part of citizens of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach,” reported the Register. “The objections were ignored, however, and construction of the buildings started.”

Ground was broken on Sunday, March 22, 1925. Rev. J.D. Gordon of the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Los Angeles began his speech to the assembled masses with the words, “Draw up nearer folks!” The driving of the first pile immediately followed the speech. “Race leaders” gave brief lectures, and people brought their bathing suits to “test the surf.” The Huntington Beach Police had to request assistance from the Sheriff to deal with the heavy traffic along Pacific Coast Highway.

“Things went along fine, and it looked like the fondest dreams would come true,” wrote the Eagle. “We watched with doubt and skepticism for the promised buildings…. We saw them rise slowly but sure … as the massive structure rose to illumine the horizon.” At least “99 percent of the members went into the proposition with the loftiest intention, and visualized a beach home for the race.”

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Talbert said he thought the movement to develop the club was a bluff to gain publicity for the promoters. He said the County Board of Supervisors was keeping an eye on the matter, and could take action in the future if necessary. 

But the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce and other civic groups wasted no time in passing resolutions to discourage the project. This officially expressed disapproval was the first significant sign of trouble. It was the tip of the iceberg, and the Pacific Beach Club had continual problems from then on.

It began when the railroad refused right of way across the tracks to the Club’s property. After much wrangling, the Pacific Electric crossing was obtained through court action. Meanwhile, some of the lumber and equipment was actually skidded into the site under a railroad trestle.

Pacific Electric trestles near the Pacific Beach Club site, 1933 (Orange County Archives)

Taking a similarly obstructionist stance, the Board of Trustees (City Council) of Huntington Beach would not provide water lines to the Pacific Beach Club. This too was ultimately solved by the Club’s lawyers.

J. A. Armitage, Secretary of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce, told his fellow members he had spoken with Clark, and felt the resort would not be injurious to the local community. Nonetheless, the Chamber created a committee to handle the publicity, propaganda, and fundraising needed to thwart the Pacific Beach Club. The members of the committee included Chamber president (and future mayor) Samuel R. Bowen, Judge Charles P. Patton, City Trustee James H. Macklin, City Attorney Lewis W. Blodget, and Edward H. Cookingham of the telephone company.

The Huntington Beach News reported Macklin’s sentiments: “Adjoining properties would be injured by the colored people, as had been the case in other localities.” He also told the Chamber that black people were picnicking in the city park. Patton replied that since Macklin lived near the park, he should be appointed to “see that the colored visitors were made comfortable.” Ominously, the suggestion was met with “a good round of laughter.” 

Downtown Huntington Beach, 1923 (Huntington Beach News)

Ironically, a number of Huntington Beach officials – including Macklin – were being targeted for removal from office by members of Ku Klux Klan at that time. Chamber president Bowen denounced the Klan, appropriately calling it an organization “founded on prejudice, hate, and intolerance…. Its success would supplant the freedom guaranteed us by our government, and a reign of intolerance would follow.”

Meanwhile, there was already trouble at the Pacific Beach Club construction site. 

“Carpenters... had overheard persons remarking on what a fine fire the buildings would make,” the Los Angeles Times later reported. Clark had trouble getting contractors to take the job, and even more trouble getting them to stay.

Still, hopes ran high for the Club in Los Angeles’ black community. On September 7, 1925, black families gathered at the construction site for a bathing beauties parade intended to promote new memberships in the Club. The event was for black people only, but white reporters from the Register “crashed the gates” to cover the event. More than 400 cars were parked along both sides of the highway, with each car averaging five passengers. The day’s events took place on a platform built on the seaward side of the uncompleted dance hall. Crews with movie cameras and radio broadcasting equipment attended. 

At the Pacific Beach Club bathing beauty contest, Labor Day 1925. Judges, including Joseph Bass, Dr. Royal Clark, and several others, selected Mildred Boyd (right) as the winner. She was a dancer at the Cotton Club in Culver City, and was part of the Creole Cuties Revue. (California Eagle)

The Los Angeles Times reported that the “negro bathing beauty parade” was believed “to be the first in the country,” and that the upscale black-only resort itself would also be a first. 

The event began with brief comments from Rev. G.M. Gordon, who held no illusions and pulled no punches: 

“The white people are not doing this because they love us, but rather in anticipation of making a profit on the land investment…. But I would rather come down here and be free than to be forced by law to take certain places or positions at other places of amusement. The white folks think they are superior to the negro, but this is not true. They do have the money, however, and we must learn to use them and their money.” 

A “stock selling” was held, with life memberships in the Club now priced at $80. Performances by a “colored orchestra” followed. This, in turn, was followed by the bathing beauties parade itself. The costumes were modest, even by the standards of the day. Fried chicken, banana cream pie, and chocolate cake were served.

Pacific Beach Club beauty contest, Labor Day, 1925 (California Eagle)

By September 13, 1925, workmen were driving pilings for the dance hall and clubhouse. Contractor Charles Rowe – who also held a mortgage on the property – rushed the work, which had been held up repeatedly. 

In early November, the Register reported that two additional “negro colonies” were being considered for Orange County: one in Garden Grove and the other between Santa Ana and Orange. This may have been a reflection of the Club’s optimism, or could just as easily have been planted as a story to help spread sentiment against the Pacific Beach Club to other parts of the county.

By the end of the month, construction neared completion on the huge steel frame of the dance hall, and the bathhouse awaited only its stucco finish.

In December – with 200 memberships sold to residents of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Orange County – the Club suffered another major setback. State Corporation Commissioner Edwin M. Daugherty refused to allow the Club to issue bonds. 

“The bonds were to mature in one year and the club, in its agreement with the bond company, was to pay . . . twenty percent of the monthly net profits for redemption of the bonds,” wrote the Register. “The club would be required to earn a net profit of $802,500 for the first year of operation to meet minimum principal and interest payments on the bonds. In addition to [finding] the plan of the club was not feasible, the commissioner found that the security for the bonds, including buildings and tent houses, was subject to rapid depreciation and of such character that in the event of a forced sale, it was unlikely that the bond issue would be realized.”

An overlay of the Pacific Beach Club property (in green) on a later map. Click to enlarge.

Construction was halted and the contractor left the job. Club memberships were now up to $90 and the struggling sales office made wild claims that it expected to sell 4,000 memberships in the coming year.

Harry C. Layton of San Pedro took over the construction contract, but almost immediately started trying (unsuccessfully) to back out. 

“Several other construction companies have had representatives in Huntington Beach during the past few days, investigating the responsibility of the club,” the Register reported. “The buildings were supposed to have been completed last summer. The framework of a large bathhouse… and the skeleton of a large dance hall have been built. Work on the tract has been very irregular. Work was halted again Tuesday [December 15] when Montgomery Burns, engineer in charge of the pile driver at the colony, dropped dead while at work. The pile driver was driving piling upon which a promenade is to be built.” 

Rumors began that a “group of capitalists” were interested in buying the property for a high-end, white-only resort. Meanwhile, some Orange Countians made repeated efforts to persuade the County Board of Supervisors to buy the Club’s property and turn it into a public beach. The Supervisors did not choose to address the issue.

Despite these impediments, construction progress lurched slowly forward, and Clark announced that the Pacific Beach Club would officially open on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1926. 

Then, around six in the morning, on January 21, a fire began in the northwest corner of the clubhouse. The only witness was the Club’s night watchman, Alonzo H. Sneed, who had living quarters along with his wife Ella in the bathhouse. Sneed said he had just gone off duty and was heading to bed when he heard a noise from the north side of the dancing pavilion. He looked out and saw the fire. He also saw two men moving quickly toward cars parked just east of the site. Sneed didn’t get the license plate numbers of the vehicles.

“A.H. Sneed, negro night watchman… declared he heard two automobiles start up and drive off, one toward Newport Beach and one toward Huntington Beach,” reported the Times. “‘I thought she’d burn up, but I thought they’d start her with a bomb,’ Sneed said. ‘A bomb is what I’ve been expecting.’” 

The fire spread rapidly, destroying the clubhouse, bathhouse, and dancing pavilion. Part of a railway bridge to the east of the complex was also scorched. Fire trucks arrived, but with no water lines yet running, the firemen could only watch the buildings burn. Only a small tool shed remained unscathed. 

A photo of the “smoking pilings and twisted steel girders” of the Club appeared in the Register the morning of the fire. In its day, this was a rare example of timely local news photography. 

Even before the steel frame of the dance hall was cool, workmen were clearing away the debris. Many club members drove slowly past to see their dream reduced to smoking ruins. The California Eagle called the burning “one of the most dastardly and cowardly crimes ever committed,” and opined: 

“The Pacific Beach Club, the last stand for our group to have a place on the sea for their very own, they have resorted to the torch and in the inky darkness of midnight have applied the same to the rising hopes and fondest calculations of those who sought that this group should have a real place of amusement worthwhile upon the sea…. Justice should assert itself in all of its fullness to the end that all peoples should enjoy the liberty and pursuit of happiness guaranteed to them under the constitution.” 

An investigation to identify the arsonists began immediately. Clark claimed they would be arrested within twenty four hours, and that Sneed knew the identity of one of the criminals. This man, the Times reported, “had been hanging around the Club for some time, and was evidently familiar with the protective arrangements, the fire having been started at the one time during the twenty-four hours when there was no watchman in the place.” However, it appears that no arrests were ever made. 

Little is known about Sneed or the reliability of his testimony. When he left the Pacific Beach Club, he took a job in Los Angeles as a cook. For a while he was known for catering enormous picnics and was known as the “Pie King” and “Barbeque Shark.” In the 1930s, he moved to Salt Lake City, where he ran a pool hall.

For his part, Hal Clark had long expected arson. He said threats had been made that the Club would never open. Rumors of plans to burn the Club had been brought to his attention by carpenters on the project and by others visiting the site.

Among the most obvious suspects were those in the local community who had loudly fought the Club’s development from the beginning: the business and community leaders of the neighboring cities. 

Another group that could have played a role was the Ku Klux Klan, which was strong in Orange County, and indeed throughout the South, Midwest, and West, in the 1920s. Available Orange County 1924-1925 Klan rosters show only a handful of members in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. However, the “Invisible Empire,” as they called themselves, operated more by word of mouth than through written records. 

Click to enlarge this panorama of an early 1920s KKK gathering at Huntington Beach (Anaheim Public Library)

The veracity of the Orange County Klan membership lists is still debated, and they are, at the very least, incomplete. Certainly there were more Klan members in coastal Orange County than the surviving rosters identify.

Huntington Beach, in particular, had strong Klan connections. Not only did the KKK march in the town’s parades, raise funds for local church projects, take out ads in the newspapers, and hold large local events, but they even painted "K.I.G.Y." ("Klansman, I Greet You") on streets leading into town. When it was revealed that the Klan held a majority on the Huntington Beach City Council, voters put them out of office in the next election. (Unlike Anaheim, where outraged anti-Klan newspapers spurred the immediate recall of a Klan-dominated council in 1924.)

On the other hand, the Klan of the 1920s was not quite the same violent vigilante group as the original Klan of the Reconstruction era or the overtly violent Klan that arose after World War II. Orange County’s Klan, in the 1920s, saw itself mainly as a Protestant civic organization, promoting the progress and “moral” development of communities, with an emphasis on prohibition. As Christopher Cocoltchos pointed out in his thesis on the Klan in Orange County, the KKK's identity as white Protestant racists hardly seemed to separate them from the rest of society in a region where white Protestants dominated and at a time when racism was, nationally, an institutionalized norm. Still, the Klan in Orange County harrassed Catholics, burned crosses, and drove at least one vocal critic of the group to build his Anaheim home with a bomb-proof first floor. 

The Klan’s history, reputation, racial and religious intolerance, and ongoing use of fear tactics indeed justified it being it a prime suspect in the Pacific Beach Club arson. Newport News publisher Samuel Meyer remembered, “In some quarters it was hinted the Ku Klux Klan had a dark and deep knowledge of the [arson] affair, because in those days the Klan was quite active in the Southland and on several occasions had set up a fiery cross on the hills overlooking Newport Harbor. It was also whispered that the destruction was spearheaded by the prominent citizens from several towns in the vicinity.”

Klansmen promoting a lecture in Anaheim, 1924.

Another argument for the Klan as the arsonists comes from Professor Dan Cady, who points out that fire was a signature of the Klan. Although true, fire is also the most expedient way for any unsavory character(s) to remove an unwanted building.

While unlikely, the arsonists could also have simply been individuals, unaffiliated with any organization, who wanted to discourage a black “colony” in their midst. In addition to true locals, the oil boom meant that Huntington Beach was also full-to-overflowing with transient oil field “roughnecks” from places like Oklahoma and Texas. 

Certainly the theory that the Pacific Beach Club was burned out by racists is the standard and most likely theory. But in order to examine all the possibilities, it's worth noting that at least one other person had much to gain from the fire: Hal R. Clark. 

Sales of Pacific Beach Club memberships were still much too low to pay the construction costs. And if the Club fell apart, there would be no way to repay the investors. Clark was between a rock and a hard place.

But when the fire destroyed the Club, all but $20,000 of the $150,000 loss was covered by insurance. In some press interviews, Clark even said that all the losses were covered. In any case, whoever set the fire effectively hit the “reset” button for Clark. 

On the other hand, historian Robert A. Johnson opined: 

“Within a few weeks the club would have been completed, and many more members would likely have joined. Even if he wanted the insurance money, why would Clark burn it that early?”

In any case, the arsonists picked the most opportune time for their purposes: Before water lines were operational and before many people were around.

Immediately after the fire, Clark announced that the Club would “rise Phoenix-like, greater and grander than ever… as a challenge to the skulking cowards who have sought to stop still its march of progress.”

Initially, he said the opening of the Club would be delayed by no more than three months. But he also said that the fire insurance would have to be adjusted, an investigation made by insurance company detectives, and the insurance money duly collected before progress could resume.

The new Club would use the same design as the original, he said, but would be built of non-flammable materials like brick and concrete. In fact, the plans were becoming increasingly fortress-like. The first structure built was to be the large stucco fence around the property – all the way down to the high tide line – with high-power lights at intervals. Several watchmen would guard the site at all hours.

Many in the black community continued to stand by Clark. The California Eagle, whose editor sat on the Club’s board, wrote, “If our genial and big-hearted promoter, Hal R. Clark, who has made it possible thus far, can possibly bring this thing to pass, we believe he surely will. For until the contrary has been proved we believe him sincere and have had for him the greatest admiration as a promoter who delivers.”

Throughout most of 1926, there was little progress on the site, as the contractors refused to move ahead with construction. But those opposing the Club remained active. Within twenty four hours of the fire, a renewed effort was launched to have the Board of Supervisors condemn the Club’s property and repurpose it as a public beach. Club opponents pointed out “the removal of the buildings has made condemnation cheaper.” Even after the “threat” of the Pacific Beach Club was long gone, this push for a public beach between Huntington and Newport never died out. Ultimately, it led to the creation of today’s Huntington State Beach.

View looking west from the Pacific Beach Club site, 2006.

Meanwhile, as opponents looked for new angles, and while the Club’s board continued its watchful waiting, Clark looked for various ways to refinance and proceed with the project.

By November 1926, the Club was still foundering financially, no rebuilding had begun, and Clark was forced to mortgage the property. He asked the members to sell memberships to their friends and families. And, in a last ditch effort, he convinced the Club to launch a nationwide membership campaign to raise $25,000. The money would be used to pay off the mortgage and taxes. 

A coast-to-coast marketing push began, and stories ran in black newspapers throughout the nation. For example, both the Black Dispatch of Oklahoma City, and the Pittsburgh Courier carried long stories about the Pacific Beach Club. The national attention gave the Club a higher profile locally as well – both for good and for ill.

Almost immediately, a group of Huntington Beach residents responded to the campaign by forming an organization to oppose the rebuilding of the Club. But it was already increasingly clear that the Pacific Beach Club wasn’t coming back anyway. The Eagle wrote, “Despite the iron clad lease which lays in escrow for a title in ten years time, one must come to the conclusion that a beach at this spot is far fetched indeed.”

Foreclosure proceedings began in mid-November 1926. A majority of the members demanded their initial investment back, forming what they called “The Money Back Club.” 

In response to this outcry, the Board of Directors called a meeting for Nov. 22, where they took comments from members before considering the Club’s fate. President Ceruti, who leaned toward rebuilding, asked that the Money Back Club be barred from participating in the meeting. The Eagle editorialized that this was a poorly considered move on Ceruti's part: 

“Bearing in mind the fate of past venture, they [the members] are satisfied that they will indeed do well to get their money back at all. They have not forgotten Peaceful Valley [Country Club], Castiac [Country Club], Long Paugh, and Hokoo Lillie, cabin sites, Country Homes, etc. Also, they bask in the recollection of Santa Monica Beach frontage as well as other beaches and are in no frame of mind to be trifled with…”  

Finally, Clark offered to give back not only the money paid by members, but an additional ten percent interest, with all claims to be paid within a month. 

Board members Smith, Robinson, and Orffut opposed this move, still hanging on to their dream of a coastal resort. But the other members prevailed, citing low morale, lack of money, and the potential for endless litigation. 

On December 4, 1926, the Board of Directors accepted the offer, and Clark released the Club from its contract to rent the property from him. It seemed to be the end of the line for the Pacific Beach Club.

Within a month, a group of white Angelenos entered into an agreement with Clark to use the land for a new white beach club, called the South Coast Club. The new club claimed it would be larger, more opulent, and feature a Norman rather than an Egyptian architectural motif. Construction was to begin in April 1927. The Club was supposedly completely financed and was not dependent on membership sales to pay for its development. 

The Balboa Times cheered:

“Progressive Orange County citizens realizing the urgent need of restricting the beach front to the white race have acquired the ocean front property... The news of the proposed development was hailed by Newport Beach residents with pleasure...” 

Balboa, viewed from the pier, 1920s

However, most of the South Coast Club's purported “Board of Governors” turned out never to have heard of the organization they nominally led, and the Club’s actual ownership was shrouded in mystery. Potential members and investors were almost certainly skeptical. Soon, the whole plan fell apart, and in July 1927 the land was sold for delinquent taxes. (Clark had still not paid the property tax from 1925.) The land’s previous owner, Col. S.H. Finley, then re-purchased the property at auction.

Simultaneously, there was a sea change on the issue of segregated beaches in Southern California. Spurred by the closing of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP had been fighting for desegregated beaches. In August 1927, their efforts, including the chapter’s first uses of civil disobedience (a “swim-in”), bore fruit. Manhattan Beach desegregated. The move was lauded by many, including the Los Angeles Times editorial board, and soon most of Southern California’s beaches followed suit.   

Still, in December 1927, a new incarnation of the never-say-die Pacific Beach Club was trying to buy back their old property for a new clubhouse. By the following month, surveyors were again at work on the property. Exactly how far these plans advanced is unclear. 

However, on Sunday, September 1, 1929, hundreds of black Angelenos gathered at a makeshift version of the Pacific Beach Club on the site where the first version had burned three years before. They erected a large tent on the old property as a recreation room, with a number of smaller tents nearby. There were hopes of doing more, and eventually adding small beach cottages all around. 

A month later, however, the stock market crashed. And like so many other development plans during the Great Depression, the revival of the Pacific Beach Club came to a permanent halt. 

Huntington State Beach, circa 1952.

Hal Clark died in Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 1962, just two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally outlawed much of the remaining racial segregation throughout the country. The identity of those who burned the Pacific Beach Club remains a mystery.

Today, the Pacific Beach Club’s old property is enjoyed by people of all colors and creeds, and it looks like any other stretch of Huntington State Beach. No sign of the Club remains. In fact, the only features that stand out are the many concrete fire rings scattered across the sand – each stamped with the warning, “Caution: Hot Ashes.”

  • “Arson Arrests Expected,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1926.
  • “Arsonists Burn Negro Beach Club,” Santa Ana Register, January 21, 1926.
  • “Business Men Talk City Affairs.” Huntington Beach News, March 20, 1925.
  • “Business Men to Oppose Colony.” Huntington Beach News, April 3, 1925.
  • Cady, Daniel, “Whiteness on the Edge of Town: Regional Transformations & Residential Preferences.” Unpublished manuscript (2004), courtesy the author.
  • “Chamber of Commerce.” Huntington Beach News, April 10, 1925.
  • “Change Complexion of Proposed Club,” Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1926.
  • Cocoltchos, Christopher, The Invisible Government and the Viable Communities: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California During the 1920s. University of California, Los Angeles, Ph.D. 1979.
  • “Colored People’s Resort Meets With Opposition,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1912.
  • “Double Crossed,” California Eagle, June 18, 1926.
  • Emmons, Steve, “Anaheim Regime: Once It Was the Klan,” Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1970.
  • “Finish Work on Frame of Beach Dance Palace,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1925.
  • Flamming, Douglas. Bound For Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. (University of California Press, 2005)
  • “Four Arrested on Charges of Oil Mail Fraud,” Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1931.
  • “Garden Grove Negro Colony Is Proposed,” Santa Ana Register, November 2, 1925.
  • “Great Day, Dese Heah Colo’d Folk Suh Do Put On Some Bathing Parade,” Santa Ana Register, September 8, 1925.
  • “Inquiry Begun In Club Blaze,” Los Angeles Times, January 22, 1926.
  • Johnson, Robert A. - Interviewed July 5, 2011. 
  • Johnson, Robert A. - Notes on the Pacific Beach Club. Unpublished. 
  • “Lady Luck Is Not At Home To Negro Club,” Santa Ana Register, December 16, 1925.
  • Leonard, Kevin. “Ceruti, E. Burton (1875-1927),” BlackPast.org. Retrieved from http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aaw/ceruti-e-burton-1875-1927
  • “Local Attorney Suspended,” Los Angeles Times, January 17, 1931.
  • “The Low Down on Pacific Beach,” California Eagle, November 26, 1926.
  • Meyer, Samuel A., Fifty Golden Years: The Story of Newport Beach (Newport Harbor Publishing Co., 1957).
  • “Negro Club Is Refused Permit,” Santa Ana Register, December 12, 1925. See also Orange County Book of Deeds, Book 626, p 330.
  • “Negro Beach Club Site in New Hands,” Balboa Times, January 27, 1927.
  • “Negroes Appeal for Funds to Buy Tidelands,” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1926.
  • Oftelie, Stan -- Email to author, July 10, 2011.
  • Old Fulton New York Post Cards Support Forum, www.fultonhistory.com
  • Orange County Book of Deeds, Book 559, p 135. Orange County Archives.
  • “The Pacific Beach,” California Eagle, March 27, 1925.
  • “The Pacific Beach,” California Eagle, January 29, 1926.
  • “Pacific Beach Bone of Contention,” California Eagle, November 19, 1926.
  • “The Pacific Beach Club,” California Eagle, July 16, 1926.
  • Pacific Beach Club advertisement, California Eagle, March 27, 1925.
  • Pacific Beach Club advertisement, California Eagle, April 3, 1925
  • “Pacific Beach Club Announces Grand Opening & Ground Breaking,” California Eagle, March 20, 1925.
  • “The Pacific Beach Fire,” California Eagle, January 22, 1926.
  • “Pacific Beach Money Backers Win Out,” California Eagle, December 10, 1926.
  • “Rush Work on Buildings for Negro Society,” Santa Ana Register, September 18, 1925.
  • “Seek Man Seen Running From Beach Club Fire; Start Clearing Ground,” Santa Ana Register, January 22, 1926.
  • “Settlement of Negroes is Opposed,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1922. 
  • “South Coast Club Will Revert To Negro Group; New Clubhouse Proposed,” Santa Ana Register, December 16, 1927.
  • “Three Projects Slated,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1927.
  • “To Oppose Proposed Negro Club,” Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1926.
  • “Women’s Political League,” Los Angeles Times, pg. B20, July 31, 1932.
  • “Work At Negro Colony Halted,” Santa Ana Register, December 9, 1925.
Special thanks to Phil Brigandi, Stan Oftelie, Susan Jepsen, Stephanie George, and Bob Johnson.

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