Riding the Wave of February 23 with Black Surfer, Nick Gabaldon

This rendering of Nick Gabaldon was done in 2013 by artist Richard Wyatt. It is based on the few photographs of Gabaldon, who died in 1951, that exist, though it is a replica of none.

Nicolas Rolando Gabaldon, Jr., the first documented Black surfer in the United States, was born on February 23, 1927 to Nicolas Gabaldon, Sr. and Cecilia Gabaldon in Los Angeles, California. Gabaldon has been largely overlooked by history, though he was a major influence in the world of surfing.

Gabaldon, one of 50 Black students who attended Santa Monica High School, grew up during the time of Jim Crow, when most beaches were racially segregated. Fortunately for him, Santa Monica was one of the few sanctuaries for Black surfers and other surfers of color. The shoreline at Bay Street Beach, known derogatively as “The Ink Well,” was an active hub of Black life. There, Gabaldon taught himself to surf. 

Like many men his age, Gabaldon served in the military during World War II, in the US Navy Reserve. When he returned home in 1946, he attended Santa Monica College where he was an honor student. Upon his graduation from college, he worked as a US Postal Service Letter Carrier.

Through all the phases of his life, Gabaldon continued to surf, sometimes paddling 12 miles from Santa Monica to Malibu, in order to join legends of the sport riding the waves, including Mickey Munoz, Greg Noll, Bobby Simmons, Buzzy Trent and others. 

Gabaldon helped integrate the sport, which remained hostile to Black surfers during his lifetime.

Gabaldon died doing what he loved, surfing, on June 5, 1951. In his honor, Nick Gabaldon Day is celebrated on June 5 each year, sponsored by the Cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, the Black Surfers’ Collective among others.

“Nick Gabaldon: the first documented African American surfer,” Surfer Today (June 8, 2020)

“Nick Gabaldon: Honoring a True Surf Pioneer,” Heal the Bay (June 9, 2020)

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