COLUMN ONE : Forgotten Oasis of Freedom : Val Verde, the ‘black Palm Springs,’ provided an escape from racism--if only for a weekend. For years, families swam, socialized and celebrated their culture in a town they built themselves.
The beauty queens and bronze musclemen have become grandparents, their brief moments of glory now legends told and retold at family gatherings.
Weekends and holidays pass by, but the people with picnic baskets and blankets and laughter no longer fill the space carved for them to help ease the pain.
No pimply faced teen-agers dance the “Hully Gully” to a nickel jukebox at the park clubhouse; no society women hold “fellowship dinners.” There are no Fourth of July parades, “Juneteenth” celebrations or hilltop sunrise services on Easter Sunday.
History, lived by generations of African Americans who spent summers and holidays in secluded Val Verde when it was a resort town for black Angelenos, endures only in fading memories and the yellowing pages of scrapbooks and photo albums.
But something enduring about this community’s past eludes the ravages of time.
Val Verde is a reminder of possibilities, a little-known success story that older generations hold dear, and a place that still pulls some of them back.
“It meant more than I can express,” said Darnell Watson Sr., 70, who spent many vacations and weekends in the Santa Clarita Valley town. “I look forward to retiring there, to spending my last days there. I’m still in love with Val Verde.”
Val Verde, “the black Palm Springs,” was founded in 1924 during an era in Los Angeles history when discrimination kept African Americans from enjoying the basic amenities of California life: sunny beaches, picturesque parks, resorts and hotels.
During those years--when supporters of Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey organized meetings on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue and black newspapers carried ads for hair- and skin-care products manufactured by millionaire entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker--black leaders created something of their own, something that ultimately became more than just a place to have fun.
They founded an unincorporated town that at one point was home to at least 750 families and attracted thousands more for vacations.
Frank D. Godden, 81, spent much of his life helping shape Val Verde into the kind of community envisioned by pioneers who sought peaceful recreation in the hills a few miles northwest of what is now Magic Mountain. These days Godden relives the past through the pages of a book he is writing on the town’s history.
“I was trying to get something there that we could point to with pride,” Godden said. “I wanted to build a first-rate community where black people could come up and just enjoy--and they did for a long time.”
Mention Val Verde and people remember: the smell of hot concrete and chlorine at a pool finally open to all races. The pride of owning your own home. The aspirations of a generation that knew what it was like to be denied.
A cross-section of Los Angeles found its way to Val Verde, from the poorest families to movie stars:
* Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel attended the groundbreaking of the town pool.
* Painter Alice T. Gafford held annual hobby shows to encourage young artists and promote art appreciation.
* Florence LaRue, later a member of the 5th Dimension, was crowned Miss Val Verde one year.
* Actor James Earl Jones raised horses and graced members of a church congregation with a preview of his play “Robeson.”
“We had wonderful times there,” said 76-year-old Nola Ewing, a Watts resident who owns land in Val Verde. “In a place like that, where everybody was trying to get a little piece of land, it encouraged you to see that it could be done. That’s what encouraged us to do it.”
Yet, when the hard-fought struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s brought down racial barriers and opened other recreation areas to African Americans, Val Verde slowly began to fade. Today it is a multiethnic town, still unincorporated, with about 1,650 residents.
“If integration hadn’t come along, Val Verde would have been so far advanced now,” Ewing said.
Communities such as Val Verde and Allensworth, a Central California black township, are vital to understanding the diversity of thought and philosophy in black America over the decades and can provide lessons for today, said Lonnie G. Bunch, director of curatorial affairs for the National Museum of American History in Washington.
“Not everybody said, ‘The key is to integrate, to butt your head against segregation,’ ” Bunch said. “Some said, ‘Maybe the best way is to withdraw and form an all-black community.’
“It’s important because it shows we didn’t just get kicked, we kicked back.”
Every colored person should do all in their power to make (Val Verde) a success. . . . You should do so for the cause that needs assistance.
--The California Eagle Newspaper, June 26, 1925
In the 1920s, the California Dream lured African Americans to Los Angeles in record numbers. The warm climate, the chance to own a home, make money and participate in the political system--rarely found in other states--drew sharecroppers and laborers from across the country.
But as the African American population increased, so did hostility and racism.
“For some people, the California Dream became a nightmare,” Bunch said.
Restrictive covenants were enacted in a campaign to “keep the neighborhoods white,” and hotels, beaches and parks turned away African Americans, he said. “In the pools in Los Angeles, blacks were only allowed in on certain days--and it was always the day before they cleaned the pool.”
In response, a prominent group of African Americans formed in 1924 to create a resort community where black people could enjoy “outdoor sports and social life in the most beautiful surroundings without discrimination,” said an editorial in the black-owned California Eagle newspaper.
That group included real estate agent Sidney P. Dones; Charlotta Bass, activist and publisher of the Eagle; community leader Hattie S. Baldwin; Norman O. Houston, founder of Golden State Life Insurance, and Laura Janes, a white woman who agreed to help.
Their task was not easy. Years before, local officials and residents had forced Bruce’s Beach, a popular black-owned resort in Manhattan Beach, to close. During the same period, the black-owned Pacific Beach Club, a resort in Huntington Beach, mysteriously burned the day before it was scheduled to open, historian Lawrence B. de Graaf said.
The founders of Val Verde first tried Palos Verdes, Godden said, but the county quashed the attempt by condemning the land.
The group settled on an isolated 30-acre homestead in San Martinez Canyon in the Santa Clarita Valley acquired through Janes. They called it Eureka--"We have found it!”
From the start, the effort was more than a commercial venture. It was a call to arms by black leaders trying to advance their race--"race men” as they were known--and was viewed as a movement that deserved the support of the entire black community.
On Eureka’s first anniversary, the founders held a huge parade down Central Avenue in Los Angeles, encouraging black residents, groups and churches to spend the day in Eureka and urging families to buy there.
In 1939, the town got a boost when white businessman Harry Waterman took an interest in the community and donated 53 acres for a park. County officials enlisted federal WPA workers to construct a bathhouse and pool, which had been renamed Val Verde.
More than 3,500 people attended the dedication, the Eagle reported.
The next Labor Day, Godden would be there too, recording history through the lens of a camera. Fresh out of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama--with a degree in photography and strong beliefs in the ideals of the school’s founder, Booker T. Washington--Godden had come to California in search of his own dreams.
“I wanted to get as far away from the South as possible,” Godden said.
He was hired by Bass to photograph the Labor Day celebration. That was the beginning of his lifelong love affair with Val Verde.
Forty-five miles northwest of the Los Angeles City Hall, nestled in a quiet rustic canyon, lies Val Verde . . . a small town known to nearly all Southland Negroes but to few others.
--Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1962
Godden returned to Val Verde after serving in the Army in World War II and became general manager of Waterman’s Val Verde Properties, selling property, often for affordable summer cottages and cabins.
The churches, fraternities, youth groups and families who visited on weekends and holidays were an integral part of the small permanent community; in turn, Val Verde was integral to black Los Angeles.
It was where black Los Angeles met itself.
“It was a weekend passion,” said Celes King, a prominent black Republican and state chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality. “I started going up there when I was a teen back in the ‘30s.”
“There was nothing available for recreation for blacks,” said King, 79. “We had the pool on 22nd Street on Central Avenue once a week. We had access to the pool in Exposition Park once a week, and there was a little thin strip (of beach) down in Santa Monica where we used to be able to go.”
But Val Verde had a full social calendar: baseball, hiking, horseback riding, hay rides, billiard tourneys, card games, golf, dances in the clubhouse, fishing in nearby lakes--and a pool and bathhouse.
Growing up during the 1940s, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and her family spent every Fourth of July in Val Verde Park.
“It was like a ritual,” Watson said. “They felt real comfortable going there, like there wouldn’t be any hassling.”
Before the Golden State Freeway opened in 1955, the 50-mile trip to Val Verde was an arduous journey that parents prepared for days in advance and children eagerly anticipated.
Nola Ewing remembers stuffing picnic baskets with ham sandwiches and filling the family’s 1954 Ford with her daughter, nephew and a host of neighborhood kids. “That little car would be so crowded,” Ewing said. “We would try and get 12 people in it.
“My husband worked in the projects and he would take children interested in art,” Ewing said. “He didn’t mind driving, as long as he saw those children interested in doing something .”
In 1954, Dale Lya Pierson was 10 years old, and a frequent visitor.
“I’ll never forget when I first heard Johnny Ace,” she said referring to the 1950s recording artist. “It was in Val Verde. He sang, ‘Forever My Darling.’ ”
For 30 years one of the biggest events of each summer was the Miss Val Verde beauty contest and later the musclemen competition. In the 1960s, a teen-ager fresh from Glenside, Pa., walked away with the crown--and went on to a Grammy-award winning career.
“It gave me confidence,” said LaRue of the 5th Dimension.
In that environment of fun and games, African Americans could also “come together to plan business deals and discuss strategies to deal with racism,” Bunch said.
“Part of recreation is play and part of recreation is communal bonding--and that’s what Val Verde provided.”
As Val Verde continued to grow as a resort, members of the struggling community worked, through the Val Verde Improvement Assn., to build a solid infrastructure for the town.
Godden remembers the milestones and the people who worked to make them happen: Clarence and Mildred Suggs, Bessie Carr, Leon P. Perdue, the Rev. N. Griggs, Yolanda C. Billingsley, Dr. William E. Bailey. Honorary mayors were named, town meetings were held and a community newsletter was started.
The Val Verde post office branch opened in June, 1956. With the help of ministers at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, an A.M.E church was started and other churches followed.
The town’s biggest problem was water. “We had a very poor water system,” Godden said. “That water would eat up the pipes just like termites would eat up wood.”
In 1951, residents formed the Val Verde County Water District, which was independent of the Los Angeles County Waterworks Districts. Years later, the community launched a campaign to get Val Verde into the county system.
Although the effort was ultimately successful, Godden still bears the scars of that racially tinged battle, and others.
“They fought me every step of the way,” Godden said of large ranches just outside Val Verde. “They didn’t want blacks to expand into Santa Clarita.”
In 1964, when there was “a nucleus of the Klan up there,” a house that Godden owned was burned. “I got to a place where I was half afraid to go up there,” he said.
This was the beginning of the end of the old Val Verde.
As more places opened to African Americans in the 1960s, they began spending their time and money elsewhere.
The town’s decline was repeated across the country, Bunch said. Often, African Americans interpreted equality with integration instead of access. In their quest for equality they sometimes left behind institutions that had been mainstays.
Standing on the basketball court in Val Verde Park, Clarence E. Suggs, 79, remembered those mainstays.
“Lucille Dixon used to have a place to eat right up here,” he said, pointing up San Martinez Road. “She used to have a trolley, made it into a cafe and a grocery store.
“Then Eddie used to have a hamburger stand over there. Made some of the finest sandwiches and things you ever tasted. . . . You used to have two little nightclubs back there.”
Val Verde’s last beauty contest was in 1979, the year James Earl Jones awarded the prize.
Jones owned an eight-acre ranch on Rainbow Drive where he raised thoroughbreds, fished and attended the town’s art shows. “I still miss it,” he said.
King, like some other early residents, held on to land he purchased--land that has greatly appreciated. After decades of life in South-Central Los Angeles, King has grown tired of the deterioration around him and is moving back to Val Verde.
This time, his neighbors will be predominantly Latinos and increasing numbers of middle-class whites.
Still, there will always be a part of Val Verde that belongs to the pioneers and their descendants, something that remains their own.
“They can’t change history,” Godden said.
Memories of Val Verde
Mention Val Verde and warm remembrances drift back. Darnell C. Watson Sr., 70, remembers peaceful summer nights when Val Verde Park as packed with visitors who slept underneath the stars. “It seemed we were all feeling the same thing and seeking the same thing,” Watson recalled. “We would share everything. We didn’t have much, but it seemed we were happier. They were some of the happiest days of our lives.”
The activities at the park were organized by Leon Perdue, 84, who made history as the first African American park director in Los Angeles County, he said.
Perdue visited Val Verde to escape the madness of city life 50 years ago and never left.
“After I rested I said, ‘To heck with it. I’m not going back.’ I stayed here and made a good living for my wife and me. We did all right.”
Although much has changed in Val Verde, it is still a place where residents enjoy “a very laid-back life,” said Edwin Seth Brown, current president of the Val Verde Civic Assn.
“I really enjoy this existence.”