Bruce’s Beach isn’t the only South Bay park to have been created at the expense of entrepreneurs and black communities.
The land on which El Camino College, Alondra Park and a public golf course now sit has a similar legacy. And it’s the legacy of this area that local historian Alison Rose Jefferson, who helped shed light on the history of Bruce’s Beach, recently detailed in a lecture at El Camino College.
This area – from Crenshaw Boulevard to Prairie Avenue and from Manhattan Beach Boulevard to Redondo Beach Boulevard in the Lawndale and Torrance areas – has a long multi-ethnic history.
The first people to settle there were the Gabrielino Tongva nation. The land then became Mexican ranchos.
And then, in the 1920s, it almost became an upper-middle-class subdivision for black residents called Gordon Manor.
It is this part of the earth’s history that Jefferson recently detailed in a presentation at El Camino College.
Jefferson is the author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era,” which includes a chapter on Bruce’s Beach and details the racism black people faced statewide as they sought to create a prosperous life.
His research also covered the history of Gordon Manor, its origins and its abrupt end by the government. Jefferson’s talk on Gordon Manor was a prelude to the El Camino Library exhibit, “The Story We Stand On: A Chronicle of the Land Occupied by El Camino,” which opens May 12 in the library lobby.
“Like many white Americans, black Americans were drawn to California for its opportunities and the imagery of the good life that encouraged migration to the state,” Jefferson said. “Stories and images of African Americans who participated in various phases of Western migration and settlement continue to remain largely absent from mainstream mythologies and history surrounding” this migration and settlement.
In 1925, Dr. Wilbur C. Gordon, along with fellow real estate developer and partner Journee W. White — both black — began planning a residential subdivision for the black middle and upper class, Jefferson said. Black contractor James Garrott was hired to draw the architectural plans.
Gordon ran a medical practice in Ohio, where he was originally from, after graduating from Howard University Medical School in 1904. He moved to California in 1912.
Gordon, White and Garrott wanted to create their own neighborhood, on their own, Jefferson said. They basically wanted to build a safe haven for black people, just like white people were doing in the towns all around them, Jefferson said.
The real estate project, like all of Gordon’s business ventures, was his way of pushing for civil rights and for black people to develop wealth and participate in the consumer culture of the time through communal ownership, Jefferson wrote. in his 2015 Ph.D. thesis in history at UC Santa Barbara. His thesis eventually became “Living the California Dream”.
The mansion’s proposed location was adjacent to major thoroughfares leading to beaches, buses, and streetcars, Jefferson wrote, making it an ideal site for development; the location would also increase property values.
Plans for the neighborhood were posh, Jefferson writes in his dissertation, with luxury homes, as well as modest dwellings, on what was then a 213-acre farm and undeveloped land. The houses were going to have a Moorish-Spanish architectural style, Jefferson said during his lecture.
The Gordon Manor project was estimated at $7 million for developers, Jefferson wrote. This price included the land, 1,000 houses, street improvements, landscaping, lighting, municipal infrastructure and financing.
People could buy land at Gordon Manor for $700 and up, Jefferson wrote, with a down payment of at least 3%.
Gordon ran an advertisement for the mansion lots in a December 1925 edition of the California Eagle newspaper, Jefferson wrote, and in March 1926 he announced in the paper that he had sold over $200,000 worth of property in the future development.
Gordon envisioned the subdivision becoming “the most select residential section of greater Los Angeles,” he said in a California Eagle article. The newspaper itself described the purchase of land at Gordon Manor as “a step forward in the march of progress”, according to Jefferson.
But for some whites, Jefferson said, it wasn’t enough for blacks to have a separate section to live in the South Bay.
Just a year after Gordon, White, and Garrott conceptualized the living space and began basic infrastructure work, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors took the land through eminent domain, thwarting their dream.
In 1926, Jefferson wrote, a group of wealthy whites living in Palos Verdes Estates convinced the board of supervisors to condemn the land for the subdivision and create a park. It was, Jefferson wrote, an attempt to keep the “invading” African Americans out of South Bay.
It happened three miles east of where Manhattan Beach city leaders in 1924 condemned the black-owned, black-serving resort – Bruce’s Beach Lodge – across eminent domain to create a park in this city. This land only became a park in the 1960s.
The Gordon Manor lot also sat vacant for years, with officials Jefferson said “in no rush to create a park.”
For 20 years, dairy cattle grazed there and Japanese market gardeners – people who sold their produce from the back of their trucks – used the land until Alondra Park opened in 1946; El Camino College opened the following year, and the public golf course opened to the public in 1950.
Gordon, Journee and their other partners received about $700,000 for the sentencing, Jefferson wrote, which barely covered the group’s expenses for the land and the infrastructure improvements they had already made.
Journee White had said in an issue of the California Eagle, Jefferson wrote, that using eminent domain procedures was a way for white people to “eliminate… groups (in any domain) whenever and as often that they (could) prove a public necessity, condemning all of your holdings for park purposes.
Jefferson’s history lesson on Thursday, April 21 gave the folks at El Camino College a lot to think about.
Brenda Thames, superintendent and president of the college, said after the conference that there is a difference between hearing that there is a story about a space and actually learning that story. She had heard about Gordon Manor while on El Camino, Thames said, but hearing the historical account of what really happened taught her more.
Hearing Jefferson talk about things like hobbies was fascinating, Thames said, because “as African Americans, we don’t think of those (type of quality of life) terms.”
“It made me think about things in ways that I had never thought about before in how race, identity and even gender intersect” with hobbies, commerce, residence, work. identity, presence and location, Thames said. “We need to tell this story specifically for this space.”
El Camino student Valerie Varnado, who presented Jefferson’s presentation, echoed the importance of integrating omitted stories like these into the larger narrative of American history.
“Being black, something that you start with (you) is expected to be taken away,” Varnado said. “The ancestors (who experienced racial terror) are unable to speak, so their voice flows through me – 100 years later, we must dig deeper and deeper to find out who we are.”
The “History We Stand On” exhibit will examine a chronological history of the land occupied by El Camino College. It opens May 12 in the lobby of the El Camino Library, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd.