On a Wednesday morning in October in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, with the sun still low on its ascent, surfer GiGi Lucas looked up from her board to see a Black man walking along the sand. As she popped up, he came to a halt and began staring at her in awe, “as if he was thinking, Wow, I’ve never seen that before,” Lucas says.
The “that” she was referring to: an African American woman riding the waves, a vision that’s rare given the sport’s abundance of shaggy-blond-haired males. Here in Jacksonville Beach, where Lucas says she’s oftentimes the sole female in the “lineup”—where surfers queue up for the next wave—and almost always the only Black female, the African American community has had a complicated relationship with the beach. Blacks weren’t allowed on the beach until the early twentieth century, and in 1935, the business leader Abraham Lincoln Lewis defied Jim Crow–era laws by buying three parcels of land to create the state’s only Black beach resort town. American Beach, located forty miles north of where downtown Jacksonville currently sits, became a coastal retreat for a generation of people, including Ray Charles and Zora Neale Hurston, before a hurricane in 1964 destroyed several buildings and time eventually gave way to development and desegregation.
Now, eighty-five years after American Beach’s creation, the forty-one-year-old Lucas is writing a new chapter in the beach saga, with an emphasis on access and inclusivity. The Florida native grew up watching her parents compete in catamaran races, and became drawn to the sense of adventure surrounding water sports. A chance outing seven years ago in Costa Rica introduced Lucas to surfing, and she hasn’t stopped since. “When I surf, I feel free,” says Lucas, who goes out daily. “Surfing has taught me to be still and patient, to allow things that are bigger than me to take place in order for me to move forward.”
In 2018, Lucas created SurfearNEGRA, a nonprofit set on diversifying the lineup through its sea and land programs for school-aged girls. SurfearNEGRA, which combines the terms for to surf and Black in Spanish, sends girls who have little to no experience in the sport to surf camps across the country. So far, sixty-four girls have started ripping the waves thanks to the nonprofit. On land, the program simulates the sport by using props like yoga mats and skateboards so youths can get the feel of riding a board.
Lucas is also a founding member of Textured Waves, a surfing collective for women of color that recently starred in the short film Sea Us Now, which reimagined classic surf culture with Black females as the main characters. “We wanted to curate beautiful, stunning imagery of women who surf,” Lucas says. “And hopefully, we’ve changed what the vision of ‘surfer’ looks like.”