Years ago, as a young lifeguard, I was assigned to the 29th street lifeguard station, where I worked for the better part of the season. It was truly a local beach back then, frequented by African American Galvestonians. That spot on the beach was truly a community center. I knew lots of the regulars and was usually given lunch by someone.
Some days, at the end of my shift, a few of the local guys would sit waiting on a bench and take over as unofficial lifeguards into the evening hours. I’d often check in with them and let them know any issues or people to watch before leaving. Normally, someone would stop by the next morning to let me know how the “evening watch” went. I even met some old timers who had been lifeguards on that same beach decades ago.
I was 18 and living more than thinking, but gradually, the layers of the untold history woven into our beaches, much of it involving African Americans, started to sink in. But it wasn’t until my wife, Dr. Carol Bunch-Davis, took an interest and started doing research on the history of black lifeguards in Galveston, that I realized that the beach I worked during those years had been designated, and segregated, as a beach for black people since the 1920’s.
Today, we’ve pulled together the African American Beach Lifeguard (A.A.B.L.) Memorial Committee that has been working on some really cool stuff, chaired by David Mitchell. The Beach Patrol, NIA Cultural Center, Old Central Cultural Center, Visit Galveston, The Historical Foundation, Galveston Lifeguarding Inc., City of Galveston, and others have been working on a multi-staged project. Phase 1 was submission of an application for an “Undertold Story” state marker on the same spot of the seawall that the “Evening Watch” sat. This just received final approval from the County after being OK’d by the Corp of Engineers, and we plan to install it sometime next year!
Phase two will be a database that profiles African American Lifeguards and black beach history. We’re looking for families and friends who can record stories of these heroes and will seek grant funding to hire a researcher to uncover this rich part of our island’s history.
Phase three will be a large, sculptural monument to these lifeguards on the north side of the seawall. The idea is that there will be a way to point your phone at either project and access the database, and this will be part of a much larger cultural tour of the island.
Galveston Lifeguarding Inc. has pledged $5,000 as a match for the $10,000 total we need to pay for the marker base and honorariums for the 3 artists who will be chosen to develop mockups for the monument. The community will vote for the final design for the big sculpture. We’re looking for donations to get this first part going.
This group has been wonderful to be part of. It’s a microcosm of good things beginning to happen on the island.
It’s amazing to see what we can do when we work together.