Last week’s column was an overview of our local lifeguarding history that mentioned the time that African American beaches were designated by law and by Galveston’s dominant culture of the time.
To talk about this part of our collective beach history, I have to lean on someone who knows much more about it (and about pretty much everything else), my wife.
Carol Bunch-Davis works at Texas A&M University at Galveston as the assistant vice president for Academic Affairs, is an associate professor of English and chair of the Civic Literacy, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Committee. No, she doesn’t write these columns for me (looking at you, Tom Linton). At least that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
Anyway, Carol recently wrote an essay called, “Always on Duty: Galveston’s African American Beaches and Lifeguards” that I’ll draw from for this column.
In 1922, there were already two African American beaches. One was at 28th Street and was referred to as “Brown Beach,” and the other was on the West End and was called “Sunset Camps.”
Waverly Guidry worked the 28th Street beach location from 1942 until 1957.
When Guidry died in 1986 at the age of 74, the obituary didn’t mention his 14 seasons as the lifeguard at 28th Street Beach. It instead identified Guidry as “a self-employed vegetable man” and a “merchant seaman.”
But he was the second African American lifeguard to work that beach and is credited with nearly 30 rescues that were documented in the local news and likely many that weren’t documented.
One example that illustrates just some of the challenges that lifeguards, and particularly African American guards, of the day faced occurred when an African American worker on the Pleasure Pier fell off some scaffolding and drowned. Being a white beach, they called Guidry from his guard post to find the body. He spent hours with a grappling hook, which was the technique of the time, looking for the body as the two white guards on duty stood watching him.
The African American community petitioned for a paid lifeguard from 1921 until 1935 when James Helton was officially hired. He’d actually been volunteering as a guard from the time he graduated from Central High School a year earlier. He worked most of his career at the port as a stevedore and finished his beach guarding in 1943.
Early in his career, a fully dressed white woman walked into the water. A white deputy noticed her and turned his car around to see what was going on. Helton dove into the water and saved the woman from drowning and potential suicide. Effecting what was, no doubt, a difficult save as a young man starting his career, he woke the following day to read in the Galveston Tribune that the rescue was attributed to “the intuition of a special deputy sheriff with the assistance of a negro lifeguard.”