Founder of the Black Surfing Association
Tony Corley's love of the beach and the ocean led him to try surfing. His stubborn determination kept him at it until he mastered the challenging sport, and his sense of playfulness and joy turned his accomplishment into a lifelong passion. After many years of being one of very few black faces in a sea of blond surfers, Corley set out to create a black surfing community. Beginning with a letter to a surfing magazine in 1973, Corley set up first an informal network, then an organization for black surfers to find each other and share their love of riding the waves. The Black Surfing Association continues to unite surfers of African descent into the 2000s, and Corley remains at the heart of the loosely organized group. Still an avid surfer, both on his home shores in central California and in the warmer waters of Baja, Mexico, Corley dreams of visiting the coast of Africa, where his ancestors may have been among the first to discover the freedom and fun of surfing.
Discovered Love of Surf
Anthony Leroy Corley was born on August 11, 1949, in the small town of Paso Robles, a hot springs resort and winemaking area in central California. His father, James F. Corley, worked as a maintenance engineer for the state of California, and his mother, Esmon Turner Corley, was a nurse. Though the vast majority of Paso Robles' population was white, the Corleys lived in a largely black and Latino neighborhood. Growing up in the rural community, young Tony Corley enjoyed playing street games and little league baseball with his neighborhood friends and fishing with his grandmother, an accomplished fisherwoman who took him to nearby lakes and taught him to catch catfish and bluegill with a cane pole.
The Pacific Ocean lay only 30 miles away from Paso Robles, and the Corley family made trips to the beach at least once or twice a month. From early childhood Tony Corley loved playing in the ocean and riding the waves on an inflatable air mattress. He also loved watching the surfers ride the powerful breakers, and when he was 12, he and a friend rented surfboards to try the exciting sport.
The first time Corley surfed, he learned that it was not an easy skill to master. In the 1960s, surfboards were heavy, cumbersome, and slippery, and trying to control one in the pounding surf was difficult. However, he was determined to keep at it until he could ride a wave while standing on his board. He taught himself to surf, progressing slowly from lying on his stomach to kneeling, until he finally succeeded at riding on his feet. By the time he was 13, he was ready to buy his own board. He had saved money from gardening and selling newspapers in hopes of buying a go-kart, but his parents, concerned about his safety, refused to allow him to buy the small, motorized vehicle. However, they did allow him to spend his savings on his own surfboard. They drove him to a nearby town to a sporting goods store that sold Dewey Weber surfboards, designed by one of the great surfers of the 1950s and 1960s, and Corley's surfing career began in earnest.
The more Corley played in the waves, the more he fell in love with the sea and the beach, and the more he identified himself as a surfer. He did not, however, identify with the blond beach bum surfer image made famous in films like Beach Party and Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Some of the white surfers he met and his black friends made their opinions clear: blacks did not surf.
Cultivated Community of Black Surfers
However, Corley's love of surfing was not dampened by these attitudes, and he continued to provide living proof that some black people did indeed enjoy surfing. In 1964, he was happy to meet another African-American surfer, James Norman, an army captain at Camp Roberts, a military base close to Paso Robles. Norman became a friend and mentor to the 15-year-old Corley and the two surfed together regularly until 1966 when Norman was sent to take part in the growing conflict in Viet Nam. Corley and Norman would remain lifelong friends. Corley found another role model in 1965 when Ebony magazine profiled a black surfer named Frank Edwards, who had taken up the sport after moving from Alabama to California during the 1960s.
During his non-surfing hours, Corley attended Paso Robles Joint Union High School, where he ran track and played football. After his graduation in 1967, he entered Cuesta College near his home. While attending classes at Cuesta, he worked as a teaching assistant for the California Youth Authority, teaching remedial reading to young people who had been locked up for committing crimes. He worked at various jobs at the CYA, taking leaves to attend California Polytechnic State University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in social sciences in 1975 and his master's degree in education and counseling in 1978. He had hoped to become a community college counselor, but government cuts in social service funding meant fewer jobs in the community college system. Corley returned to the CYA for the remainder of his career, becoming a group supervisor and youth counselor. In 1979, he married Rosemarie Garza, a sixth generation California Mexican from Santa Barbara County whom he had met while attending Cuesta College, and the two started a family.
As he continued to surf and enjoy the central California beaches, Corley missed his old surfing buddy Jim Norman and looked for a way to find other African Americans who loved playing in the waves the way he did. In 1973 he wrote a letter to the editor of Surfer, one of the few magazines devoted to the sport, hoping that there might be a few black readers who would see his letter and contact him. Surfer published his letter in January 1974, and Corley was soon excited to begin receiving letters and phone calls from African Americans who were also anxious to connect with other black surfers. Though he received some racist hate mail as well, he was undaunted as he began to compile a file of contacts, to arrange surfing gatherings, and to publish a series of newsletters.
In 1975, Corley officially started the Black Surfing Association. The file in his home continued to grow with increasing membership, and the organization sponsored many informal gatherings, particularly in southern California. In 1983, Surfer magazine featured a story titled "The Black Surfers of the Golden State," highlighting the accomplishments of Corley and others. By the 2000s, the growth of the Internet allowed word to spread even further, creating more opportunities for black surfers to meet and play together. Young African Americans interested in surfing no longer had to feel alone and isolated, but could find role models on the Internet and at BSA gatherings, such as the annual May surfing contest and beach day, introduced by the group during the early 2000s. Corley attends such events proudly, feeling, as he told Contemporary Black Biography, "like a grandfather at a family reunion."
At a Glance …
Born Anthony Leroy Corley on August 11, 1949, in Paso Robles, CA; married Rosemarie Garza, 1979; children: Vyctor, Cleo Moraia, Aquila Rose, and Anthony Silas. Education: California Polytechnic State University, BS, social sciences, 1975; California Polytechnic State University, MA, education with an emphasis on psychology, 1978.
Career: California Youth Authority, teaching assistant, group supervisor, youth counselor, 1968-2003; Black Surfing Association, founder and member, 1974-.
Memberships: Black Surfing Association, founder.
Addresses: Home—Paso Robles, CA. Web—www.blacksurfing.com.
Tony Corley retired from CYA in August 2003. He continues to surf and enjoy the beach, passing on his love of the sea to his children and grandchildren, who enjoy fishing, skateboarding, and riding the waves on short boogie boards near Paso Robles or at the family vacation home in Baja, Mexico. At the southern California surf mecca of Venice Beach, a pair of 40-foot murals honors the history of black surfing. Titled "Old Wave" and "New Wave," one giant painting depicts Tony Corley, crediting him as "Black Surfing Association founder and soul surfer since the 1960's." Facing Corley is another huge mural of a young African-American woman riding a wave, titled, "Andrea Kabwasa—competing in uncharted waters in 2005." Besides his own children and grandchildren, the new generation of black surfers represented by Kabwasa is perhaps Tony Corley's proudest legacy.
Ebony, April 1965, pp. 109-13.
Essence, October 2005, pp. 86.
"The Barbershop Club," Wet Sand: World Wide Waves, www.wetsand.com/article.asp?locationid=5&resourceid=3743&ProdId=0&CatId=848&TabID=0&SubTabID=0 (June 28, 2007).
"Black Surfing Association," Blacksurfing.com,www.blacksurfing.com/meet.htm (June 28, 2007).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Tony Corley on April 23, 2007.
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