African-American Leaders in the Lifeguard Division – Building a Legacy

By February 21, 2019LG News

Creating unity through diversity, the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division takes pride in having a workforce of many unique people from many different backgrounds, paving the way for other agencies and organizations alike. In Honor of Black History Month, we would like to recognize a few of the courageous leaders that inspired many. 

John Tabor – The 1st African-American Ocean Lifeguard 

OL John Tabor became an L.A. City Ocean Lifeguard in 1942 and an LA County Ocean Lifeguard at the age of 22. His rookie year worked Navy at Venice Beach, one of the busiest beaches in LA County. Following his year at Venice, Tabor moved down south to Dockweiler Beach, patrolling on his own the vast stretch of beach from S. Channel to El Segundo.  

John describes himself as a “beach rat,” in his youth: growing up on Venice Beach, he spent every summer at Brooks Avenue…the pinnacle of his teen years being swimming around the Venice Pier. John’s youth was spent training to be a Lifeguard. John has served all stations from Cabrillo to Leo Carillo and was even one of the first Zuma Lifeguards in 1946. A self-made waterman, John’s life revolved around the ocean as he took up the art of skin diving, visiting beaches from Goleta to Dana Point, wearing wool underwear as a “wetsuit”, a homemade dive mask, and Churchill fins.  

As the first Ocean Lifeguard, John broke through barriers others never thought possible and shattered limitations placed on African-Americans in his time. Tabor recollects that he and most people of his day were taught to be a “role model for their fellow citizens”, and by working hard even through adversity, Tabor proved those wrong and who once told him that he and all other “colored youths could not be as good as the other ones.”  

In a time when an African-American Lifeguard was unheard of, Tabor explains that “if you wanted to compete in the white world, you could not be as good as them, you had to be better.” Even when John explained to his mother that he wanted to become a Lifeguard at age 20, his mother told him that he could not be one. She told him, “There are no colored people that are Lifeguards.” And she was right. She said, “Why are you wasting your time on trying to be a Lifeguard?” But that made John even more determined to pursue his dreams.  

Throughout his career as an Ocean Lifeguard, John Tabor inspired the generations to come, with his perseverance, commitment to his dream, and most notably his courage to do something that had not been done before.  

After his Lifeguard service, John
 became an Aerospace Scientist, receiving the title of the most prominent African-American Aerospace Scientist of his day, playing a pertinent role in the development of the rocket that carried the first men to the moon.  


Russ Walker – The 1st African-American Assistant Chief Lifeguard  

Russ Walker became an LA County Ocean Lifeguard in 1965, with the high encouragement from Rescue Boat Captain Shelly Butler. Walker participated in the March 1965 exam in which there were approximately 112 swimmers who participated, and 25 were selected-Walker was number 23. Before this exam, Walker had not swum in the ocean before, especially in sub 60-degree water, nor did he spend much time at the beach since it was a far distance from his home. But Walker passed the test, in the top 25 and became an LA County Ocean Lifeguard despite his upbringing away from the ocean.  

After working a few years on the beach while serving in the Navy, Walker started working on EMS updates for the Lifeguard Division and grew even more passionate about the career, becoming a permanent lifeguard in 1973.  

For the next 31 years, there were many other accomplishments that Walker contributed to. He worked on the recruitment team, recruiting the next generation of lifeguards like Mike White, Andre Todd, Adrian White, Marcus Chatman, Remy Smith, and more to follow. He also developed the Lifeguard Training Program in 1978 that recruited and trained candidates from inland communities to become ocean Lifeguards and started the W.A.T.E.R. Program. 

Walker further illustrates the message that “people who have the potential of becoming good Lifeguards do not just come from the beach communities, nor do they have to come from one group of people.” Walker exemplifies that “good lifeguards can come from anywhere…even from the inner city.”  

Alyson Bailey – The 1st African-American Woman Ocean Lifeguard  

OL Alyson Bailey was our first female African-American Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard 1981. Recruited by Russ Walker, Allyson served for County for 9 years. Her impressive swimming background lead her to taking the exam, making history as the first African American female Ocean Lifeguard.  

Alyson grew up in South Central LA, swimming at the 28th Street YMCA for the Los Angeles Marlins Swim Team. After high school, she made the move to Santa Monica College to swim, achieving All-American honors. Alyson’s teammates encouraged her to take the exam in 1981-racing against 250 participants, most of who were men, Alyson finished in the top 85, earning her spot as the first African-American Woman to become a Los Angeles County Ocean Lifeguard.  


Mark, Richard. Our L.A. County Lifeguard Family. LACoFD, Lifeguard Division, 2011.