Skateboarding emerged from the surf culture of Southern California. Due to de facto segregation, many black folks didn't get the chance to kick it at the beach, much less surf.
In the 60s, as an article in The Guardian notes, "Black surfers were almost as rare in LA as unicorns.”
Social media makes it easy to link up, reach out, and learn about other scenes and skaters. In the 1970s, Tony Corley was fortunate to have a letter published in Surfer magazine. He was looking to see if any other black surfers wanted to meet up.
Amazingly a few answered the call, and in 1974 he started the Black Surfers Association.
Around the same time, modern street skating began taking form in the schoolyards of West Los Angeles. While getting out to the surf was difficult, dudes like Clyde and Marty Grimes brought the style to the streets.
I was born in 1986. It would be another 12 years until I learned who Gershon Mosley or Ray Barbee was. In 1986 Stephanie Person had a Thunder ad in Thrasher. Stephanie was the first professional black woman skater.
Not only was she in the mags, Stephanie:
Skated street and vert
Did a demo at a 49er’s game
Got hooked up by Swatch from a cold call
She schooled me and said she found inspiration in Don Hillsman, the first black person to do a 540. She also listed Steve Steadham’s boneless as one of her favorite tricks done by a black person. If you go back and check out Future Primitive, she’s the one putting down the boneless at Derby.
In the first mag I had, Clyde Singleton had a photo feature of a fakie front crook that I’ll never forget. The only giveaway was a hand, but that was enough. When I spoke to Clyde, he also said he drew inspiration from Steadham.
Linking the lineage, the new Magenta pro, Jameel Douglas, grew up looking up to Clyde.
Jameel contributes tech manual and ledge lines to San Fransico’s downhill culture, but his early influences came from street-grabbers, Emeric Pratt and Darrell Stanton.
We cannot talk about black history in skating without talking about ‘Reem. Nearly everybody mentioned Kareem in one way or another. His legacy as a skater, entrepreneur, and video game character is a testament to black excellence.
Some of our favorite Kareem moments:
The pager check
The switch hardflip over the table
The tre flip 5-0 on the table
The 411 Day in the Life
One of the most enigmatic moments in skateboarding was the “Ghetto Bird” at the Radlands contest. As former Menace rider Lee Smith recalls, “It’s poetry in motion truly. How he did it was hypnotizing.”
THPS was revolutionary for skating as a whole, but having Kareem up in there changed the game for black folks everywhere. He made it cool and acceptable for black people to start skating.
“I started skating shortly after getting hooked on the first Tony Hawk video game, and I grew up in an almost entirely white suburb,” says Hopps pro, Keith Denley. “Seeing him in the roster of characters was inspiring cause it was confirmation that other black skaters actually existed.”
Inspiring the Youth
Brandon Turner was a enormous influence on me. As he was known at the time, Lil B was a lot closer to my age and looked cool as hell in that TSA gear.
Brandon says his first favorite black skater was Jeron Wilson. Jeron was also a li’l dude when he came out swinging in the friend's section of Virtual Reality.
Around the age of 25, I started feeling old. The next generation at Denver Park had all my lines and then some.
Growing up in Denver, I didn’t see a ton of black people, but there was a good amount to look up to in the skate scene. It was uplifting to see the next generations were full of young black folks.
I felt a lot of pride seeing my guy Faheem Allah big-time modeling and rolling around with the Hopps crew. He grew up in a new generation looking up to cats like Ishod, Jamal Smith, and Chima. But I know those wallies came straight from Denver park.
“The black skater I would like to honor this month, most importantly, is Jahmal Williams, owner of Hopps skateboarding,” says Allah. “Through his skating and legacy, he has shown us how any skater can have an insane take on all terrain.”
Speaking of youngsters, how cool was it to see Jordan Powell in the Emerica video? He put it down with the switch frontside flip heard ‘round the world.
“The first black skater that inspired me was Tre Williams,” says Powell. “Known him since I was a jit.”
But, both Jordan and Tre draw inspiration from The Champ.
“One of my favorite tricks by a black skater would be Ishod Wair’s nollie frontside flip crook around the C ledge in his “Back on my BS” part,” says Williams, Primitive and New Balance rider.
These dudes are the new generation of black excellence, but the future is in Washington D.C. at Freedom Plaza.
“I would like to honor my daughters who are both black skaters,” says Darren Harper, fakie heelflip icon and switch master of the Pulaski tall ledge. “Demi and Dakota, a.k.a Tink.”
We all started this for the same reason. Never forget that.
Every generation has that group of “big brothers/cousins/uncles I never met (laughs),” says Jabari Pendleton, the St. Louis and San Francisco luminary.
Be it in mags, videos, or video games, we all found our sources of inspiration. Others were lucky enough to grow up in it.
“When I first started skating, all I saw were black skaters," says Smith. “I moved back to SF in 89, and I was skating by myself in my neighborhood when Karl Watson, Lavar and Marcus McBride, Pat Washington, and some others came to the curbs I was at and started killing it.”
Smith’s early days also included time on ATM Click and 60/40; the first team to feature an entire roster of people of color.
Witnessing it in person or not, we can all appreciate the meaningful moments in skateboarding that black skaters gave us:
Keenan Milton’s switch flip over the table
Ray Barbee in Ban This
The rise of Stevie Williams
Antwuan in Baker 3
Samaria’s Thrasher cover
“I’d like to honor all the black skaters that do it for the love. That’ll never get recognition, but still, get out there and beat the block up. Your validity is just as important as the biggest name pro. We all started this for the same reason. Never forget that. Never stop chasing that feeling.”
I want to honor and thank all skaters who inspired and contributed to this newsletter. Shout out to Jonathan Lane too. Jordan Powell said so.
Great to hear all these perspectives, and have them all in one place. From what I have been told, the pre-ollie schoolyard stuff definitely intersects with surf culture. And of course Natas, has a direct overlap with Dogtown. But street skating of today, and schoolyard skating of today kinda starts in Florida with the ollie–invented by Alan Gelfand–which comes to LA via Rodney Mullen along with shuvs and flips, and the street board invented by Paul Schmitt–which comes to LA and subsequently the globe via Vision and World Industries. And then Gonz, Kareem, Shiloh, Soc, Daewon, Henry, and all them start out on Rodney's company creating the brand identities that define the industry , inventing the vernacular of skateboarding with the idea of flipping and spinning the board, and filming with your homie who skates and turning it into a video that becomes an avatar for your person. Not trying to say "you're wrong," but I think the Florida history is not so publicized, and a lot of the sequence of how things intersected, and the cross-pollination with these small groups of people are not so widely known or publicized. It's no coincidence that the skaters who invented our idea of skating were riding for the company invented by the guy who invented the tricks, and using increasingly-functional boards–designed to the specifications of the tricks the skaters were coming up with–made by the guy who invented boards. And no coincidence that both those dudes are from Florida, and were homies in Florida. All that to say: the schoolyard skating of today definitely originated in East/Central LA, and it's created by people who were not part of any surf culture.
Missed this when it first ran; Bravo, Sir! 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽