Frank Godden, who played a significant role in the development of Val Verde, a secluded and long-closed local resort community known as “the black Palm Springs,” has died. He was 101.
Godden, who had cancer, died Aug. 3 at his Los Angeles home, his family announced.
Val Verde was founded in 1924 in the Santa Clarita Valley at a time when the region’s black citizens were barred from beaches, parks and other attractions because of the color of their skin. There they could escape racism, if only for a weekend.
Godden’s connection to Val Verde dated to 1939, when he headed west after earning a bachelor’s degree in commercial industries from Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.
“I wanted to get as far away from the South as possible,” Godden said in 1994 in a front-page Times feature on the resort headlined “Forgotten Oasis of Freedom.”
As an assistant to white real-estate developer Harry Waterman, Godden was soon integral to the development of Val Verde, then entering its prime as one of the few local places where black residents could swim and camp.
“I was trying to get something there that we could point to with pride,” Godden told The Times in 1994. “I wanted to build a first-rate community where black people could come up and just enjoy — and they did for a long time.”
Godden was associated with every major development project in Val Verde until 1970, according to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which gave him its Heritage Award for community service in February at its African American Festival.
“Through his extensive efforts in pursuit of civil rights and equality for African Americans, Mr. Godden played an important role in our local culture,” Anthony Brown, an aquarium executive, said during the award ceremony.
Nicknamed “Mr. Val Verde,” Godden began staging his signature events — muscle men and bathing beauty contests — decades before the Miss America Pageant allowed non-white contestants, said Jocelyn Y. Stewart, a former Times staff writer who is writing a book about Godden.
At its peak, Val Verde was home to about 750 year-round families and served as a summer retreat for African Americans from around the United States.
After hard-fought gains in civil rights, the resort began to fade in the 1950s and 1960s as African Americans started spending their time and money elsewhere.
An amateur historian, Godden refused to let the community fade away.
He created a small museum in a unit of the triplex he owned in South Los Angeles and devoted it to black history that touched his life. That included documents and photographs of Val Verde, the Tuskegee Institute and George Washington Carver, the noted scientist who taught at the school. As a student, Godden had given tours of Carver’s lab.
Curators and writers routinely sought out Godden and his trove at his Carver-Washington Museum of California, which is looking for a new home, said curator Abdul-Salaam Muhammad.
One of nine children, Frank Dewitt Godden was born March 4, 1911, in Live Oak, Fla. His father was a minister and farmer. His mother was a school principal who died when he was 12.
He attended a secondary-school program at Tuskegee and became a devoted alumnus of the college, sitting on its board of trustees in the 1960s.
During World War II, Godden served in the Army’s 90th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion, a unit of black soldiers, in Africa and Europe. He also covered the war for the Associated Negro Press.
Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1946, he ran a number of businesses, including a funeral home and a company that built an apartment complex for low-income senior citizens in South Los Angeles.
As a civil rights activist, he successfully campaigned to end racially restrictive covenants, which opened up Los Angeles to minority home buyers and helped hasten the end of Val Verde.
Twice married and divorced, Godden had no children. He is survived by nieces and nephews.