When Verna D. Williams went to the beach in Santa Monica with her sweetie in the 1920s, the only place she was allowed to spread her blanket was on a blacks-only section of the sand.
"They called that part of the beach the Inkwell," the Crenshaw resident recalled. "All the rest of the beach was privately owned. You couldn't go there unless you belonged to a club, and we couldn't belong to a club."
On Aug. 2, 1924, a friend took a photo of 17-year-old Williams and her beau, 21-year-old Arthur Lewis, as they sat in their bathing suits in the Inkwell. Just as the picture was about to be snapped, Lewis grabbed the shy beauty by his side and pulled her to him.
"I was so embarrassed," Williams said.
The couple married two weeks later.
Instead of keeping that fragment of history to herself, Williams has given the photo, along with several others, to the Los Angeles Public Library. It is part of a growing collection of photographs documenting Southern California's ethnic past.
According to Carolyn Kozo, founder of Photo Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, the library has been seeking to increase its holdings of minority photographs since 1991. It has acquired about 1,500 photos from the African-American community, 1,200 from the Latino community and 1,200 from Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Kozo will speak today about "Shades of L.A.," as the library's photographic history project is called, at Loyola Marymount University. The lecture will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the McIntosh Center on the Westchester campus. Admission is $5.
Like most photos, Williams' pictures are filled with smiling faces, but they are also reminders of a time when Angelenos of color were routinely discriminated against. Williams laughs when she talks about the past, but her stories bring to mind the lines from the old blues song: "The good old days, the good old days. I was there. Where were they?"
Williams, who was from Texas, loved Los Angeles because blacks had more freedom here than in the South. "You couldn't even go to the park in Texas," she said.
She recalls that her father insisted on traveling in the family car to keep his children from having to sit in the back of the bus or streetcar. And the family always brought its own food when traveling because in Texas African-Americans could buy food in a restaurant but could not eat it in the dining area, which was reserved for whites.
Los Angeles was better, but not perfect.
Williams' young husband and her brother got jobs as porters at a local auto repair shop. The brother had been taught by their mechanic father how to fix cars, and he was soon working there as a mechanic.
But because he was black, he was still paid a porter's wage. His white co-workers told him not to complain. After all, the mechanic's job was easier than the porter's. But Williams' brother would have none of it and quit.
In the '40s, Williams became a real estate agent. For much of the decade, deeds routinely contained restrictive covenants barring Jews, blacks and other minorities from the most desirable neighborhoods.
Williams got a white friend in her office to buy a lot for her in Gramercy Park. When a neighbor-to-be reminded Williams that she could not live there, Williams silenced the woman by snapping back: "If I can't live here, I've got some white relatives who can." In 1949, Williams built "a beautiful, modern, California redwood house" on the lot. "I lived in it for 30 years."