Podcast: Segregated Beachfront and African American Lifeguards of the Early 20th Century

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Planning a trip to the sandy and sunny beach for a day of relaxation and invigoration from the saltwater is something most Galvestonians and residents within a day's drive take for granted today.

Galvestonians and visitors to the Island can pack their supplies, make their way toward the Gulf, and set up for the day wherever they please! Depending on the season, they may even have a well-trained lifeguard watching over the beach to keep them safe in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A rejuvenating practice that has continued for over 150 years on Galveston island.

When we take a step back and dive into the history of the Galveston beachfront, we discover that through the ages, Galveston's sandy shoreline has a story to tell of surmounting the invisible borders of racial segregation and exhibits how the impact of heroic action, although left out of history books, affected the Island we call home. At the turn of the 20th century, Galveston island became a destination where African Americans set their sights on finding work to make a living and education for their children. Although Galveston has been noted to have been a considerable improvement for African Americans who moved to the Island from other parts of the South, the Island was still fraught with racial discrimination and segregation until the 1960s civil rights movement.

As many white-owned businesses were off-limits for non-white people, establishments were opened across the Island to accommodate marginalized residents of Galveston. The same sentiment stood for recreational locations, and segregation didn't end before you got to the Gulf of Mexico. In the early 20th century, after the seawall was built and the Island began drawing tourists from all around, white beachgoers would generally swim and enjoy beach recreation on the east end of the Island, while African Americans did the same on the west end. But there was one exception: between 28th and 29th Street along Seawall Boulevard stood several popular black-owned businesses, including Gus Allen's Villa, the Jambalaya Restaurant, and the Manhattan Club. This one-block stretch of beach was open to black residents. It allowed African American beachgoers to enjoy beach recreation and entertainment within the proximity of the beach.

The beaches outside of this area were generally patrolled by lifeguards to keep the beachgoers safe, but the need for a dedicated lifeguard service on the African American beach was expressed by locals in 1921. In 1934, a young African-American man named James Helton began volunteering at the beach after graduating from Central High School. He became one of Galveston's most notable African American Lifeguards. 8 years later, Wavery Guidry began guarding the beaches with him and slowly built a group of volunteer lifeguards that patrolled the beach between 28th and 29th street as well as the West End.

Helton and Guidry were credited with numerous rescues along the African-American beachfront. They were highly respected among the community for their service on the beach. White lifeguards would generally not assist the black lifeguards during a rescue or cover the area while a black lifeguard was busy. And Black lifeguards would assist anyone in their patrol area when noted to be in trouble. Although they conducted rescues outside the generally Black beachfront and assisted white lifeguards when in need, the newspapers would rarely credit the men by name or intentionally leave them out of the story. It is hard to imagine saving a life and a person being reunited with loved ones because of your efforts and your work going unacknowledged by anyone except eyewitnesses.

Wavery Guidry served 12 beach seasons as a lifeguard, and James Helton served 9. The men are but a couple of Galvestonians who fought adversity through their dedicated work on Galveston Island. The men had peers and predecessors who could be found along the beaches of Galveston and the United States who worked to keep their community safe. Two of Galveston's notable Black lifeguards demonstrated an unwavering dedication to the safety of those they were assigned to protect, and with or without credit, they helped keep the beachfront safe beyond invisible borders.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."