By Jon Wolff
The following is from a recent conversation with Dr. Naomi Nightingale about the hearing before the Department of City Planning’s Office of Historic Resources to apply for historic monument designation for the First Baptist Church of Venice.
Jon Wolff: The Save Venice team that’s fighting for the First Baptist Church of Venice enjoyed a victory yesterday.
Dr. Naomi Nightingale: Yes. We were absolutely elated and relieved that the Commission gave us an approval. That approval meant that they would consider our application to make First Baptist Church of Venice a historic monument. So that started the process. If we had gotten a “no” vote, that would have pretty much put an end to the effort for historic designation.
JW: What’s our next move? What can we expect to happen next?
NN: They will schedule a site visit. After that, they will use their criteria to determine eligibility for a historic designation. Then they will schedule another hearing where they will let us know their determination thus far. I don’t know what the time period is for scheduling that. Our group needs to meet to figure out what they will be looking for. We don’t know where the stained glass windows are. We don’t know where the crosses are. We don’t know where the pews are. We have no idea what it looks like on the inside of the church.
JW: The Save Venice team made a presentation based on the value of the history of the church.
NN: Absolutely. We talked about the value of the history of the church, not only in terms of its structure and what was involved in the Community participating in funding the structure and continuing to support the church after and throughout the building, but also about the significance of the church in terms of value to the Community as a place of refuge, as a place of counsel and Community-grounding and unification. It was a source of Community events and activities and a place where people went to celebrate weddings and to have homegoings and funeral services for their families. The significance of the church goes beyond the building itself and is inclusive of the land which the building sits on. And the land across the street where the original church sat, because all of that is infused with the African-American contributions to the entire area now called Oakwood.
JW: The history of the church included so many events and so many personages that came through the church over the years.
NN: Yes. Originally, the African-Americans that came to Venice, including Mr. Reese [Arthur Reese] and Mr. Tabor [Irving Tabor], started from very humble and very limited beginnings. But as much as they didn’t have, they came together to build places of worship. Even if it meant converting an old barn into a religious place. From there, they went to 7th and Westminster where Reese donated the land to build that church in 1927. All of the history and the essence that goes along with it, the narratives of the stories and the lives of the people who made those contributions, were not in easy times. This was 35 to 40 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, where people came to California from the South hoping to escape racism and discrimination and have better opportunities. Little did they know that were going to face some of that same racism here. They were relegated to living in this restricted covenant area and told, “This is where you can live. Nowhere else. This is where you have to learn to thrive. You can’t go outside of this. None of the fruits of the area outside of this boundary do you have access to.” These people and the people after them, including my grandparents and my parents, took what they thought was the least and made the best of it.
JW: The church is the symbol of that very struggle.
NN: The church is the iconic symbol of that struggle. Because, when anybody passes, drives by, walks by, and sees the neon sign of First Baptist Church, they remember. They can say, “I got married there.” They can say, “I went to church with my grandparents there every Sunday.” ” I went to Sunday school there.” “I was a member of the Boys’ Junior Choir there.” So many things happened in that church that, visually, it standing there and being the beacon and the symbol in this Community keeps people, not only rooted to their Black History, but infused within their own history, and gives them a sense of pride that says, “Yes, that’s our church.”
JW: Now the Penskes and their lobbyists were hoping to argue against this? Is that right?
NN: Well, according to what Penke’s wife said, she didn’t come there prepared to speak. She thought that “the facts would stand for themselves.” Obviously, that wasn’t the case. The Commission was swayed by our presentation that the church deserves consideration. And so they did not support the Penskes’ project at this time.
JW: To take from what Elaine Irwin [Jay Penske’s wife] said, that she wasn’t expecting to have to speak… it seems like they weren’t expecting a lot of what the Save Venice team has put in their face.
NN: I think that Penske had no clue of what he was up against when he purchased this property. I think that he was ignorant about the kind of pushback that he was going to get. I think he had no idea of the determination and the intelligence and the effort and the organization that the Save Venice group has. I think he might have been a little bit hoodwinked or had the wool pulled over his eyes by Horace Allen, because he didn’t do his investigation to what he was really getting into. I think he’s totally surprised by this. I don’t think he expected this. I don’t think he expected it at all.
JW: He can probably expect that this fight is going to continue and that Save Venice is going to keep going.
NN: We’re not going to give up. This group is not going to stop. Our energy has not dissipated. We’ve had people show interest in joining us and helping to continue the fight. Helping to provide the information that we need. To show that the Community is along with us and to ensure that First Baptist Church becomes a historic monument; that it never becomes the Penskes’ residential single-family home. And that we’re able to maintain and celebrate Black History in Venice.
JW: I believe we’re going to win.
NN: It’s in my heart. I don’t know anything about losing. I don’t see a stopping point. We’ve got an approval from OHR. That’s a green to light move forward. We’re waiting on CEQA [the appeal to the California Environmental Quality Act exemption], and we’re optimistic about that being a win for us as well. We’re looking to see what we can do with the Coastal Commission, as it relates to their work in continuing to sustain the history of the Venice Community, which is part of their charge.
JW: And the petition is over 32,00 signatures now.
NN: Absolutely. The last we looked, it was 32,600 and I think it’s going to grow.
You can sign the petition to grant historical status to the First Baptist Church of Venice at:
And learn more by going to: www.savevenice.me