A once-thriving black-owned beach is being returned to its rightful owners
Like millions before and after them, Willa and Charles Bruce came to California with a dream.
After moving west from New Mexico with their young son, the couple purchased a plot of land in 1912 on a sparsely populated coastal strip. It was just south of the then booming city of Los Angeles, on what would later be known as Manhattan Beach.
There the couple opened a small resort called Bruce Beach Front, where guests could do what so many others were doing on the Golden Coast. They swam and ate. They were listening to music and dancing. They relaxed and took in the breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean.
Bruce’s Beach was remarkable not for what happened there, but because of who was allowed to enjoy it. Willa and Charles Bruce, a black family barely a generation removed from slavery, provided a rare recreational enclave for other black families who, in the Jim Crow era of rampant and violent racism, were not welcome on most beaches in the state.
Even so, within a week of opening their doors, white neighbors began harassing the Bruces and their customers. “Wherever we tried to buy land for a resort, we were turned down,” Willa said in a 1912 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “but I own this land and I will keep it.”
Willa did just that, despite continued harassment, and Bruce’s Beach thrived for over a decade.
Then in 1924, bowing to a racist outcry from aggrieved white residents, Manhattan Beach city officials condemned 30 lots, including Bruce’s Beach and four other lots owned by black families, seizing them under the legal guise of an estate. eminent. The city claimed it needed to turn the land into a public park, then left it undeveloped for decades. The family sought legal recourse but were unsuccessful. In the end, they only received $14,500 from the city (equivalent to about $224,603 today) and left town.
Now, nearly a century later, their descendants have reclaimed this land. In September, the state adopted SB 796, which authorized Los Angeles County to legally return the property to its rightful owners, the Bruce family, who plan to lease the lifeguard training center that now sits on the land to the county. The victory was the culmination of a concerted effort by family and allied defenders. In an interview with the Guardian, Willa and Charles’ great-great-grandson Anthony called the transfer “a long overdue account.” For other black Americans, their story has also sparked a new push for justice and restitution.
The Battle for Bruce Beach
Kavon Ward grew up in Harlem but lived in Manhattan Beach for years. As a black resident, she was angry when she discovered that “black entrepreneurs were basically the co-founders of Manhattan Beach”, and that she had never heard of them.
“Had they not been evicted from their land, Manhattan Beach might have been a predominantly black community,” Ward says. Today, black residents make up less than 1% of Manhattan Beach’s population of about 35,000, which remains largely white and, like much of coastal California, extremely wealthy.
After realizing this, she wanted to do something.
In celebration of June 16, 2020, Ward and other black mothers hosted a picnic at Bruce’s Beach, which had since been turned into a state-owned lifeguard training area. Some of the Bruces were present, as well as members of the press.
Advocates — including descendants of the Bruce family and former mayor Mitch Ward, the first African-American elected official in Manhattan Beach’s history — helped rename the beach to Bruce’s Beach in 2007 and erected a plaque, but the plaque’s narrative of events remained whitewashed and failed to tell the story of the city’s wrongdoings. For Kavon Ward and others, these efforts seemed like a poor substitute for true restitution.
At the picnic, a reporter asked Ward if she wanted the plate changed. “I said, ‘Yes, I want the plate changed, but I also want the policy changed to return the land to the family,'” Ward recalled. “Every action thereafter was focused on that.”
With her own roots in advocacy work, Ward co-founded a group called Anti-Racist Movements Around the South Bay, through which she began working with the Bruce family. “We established ourselves after the murder of George Floyd as a safe space for black women, and especially black mothers, to grieve,” Ward says. She later left that group and founded the more focused organization, Justice for Bruce’s Beach.
Activists launched protests, petitions, and marches, in hopes of teaching Manhattan Beach residents about their city’s history. In the fall of 2020, the city had created a working group to study the issue and make recommendations. “We did what was necessary to make sure the powers that be heard us and the powers that were going to create the policies heard us,” Ward says.
But their public was not always receptive. When the task force made its recommendations, which included a formal apology to the Bruce family, members of the Manhattan Beach City Council essentially refused. An anonymous group of Manhattan Beach residents even ran an ad in the local newspaper, calling the task force’s efforts a race-fueled power grab. “It’s one thing not to support, but it’s another thing to use your time and energy to prevent that from happening – and that’s what happened in the city of Manhattan Beach “says Ward.
The working group produced a report 2021 which detailed the history of the beach and its condemnation. Its digging also revealed a critical detail: the land was actually under county control, not the city.
So Ward and his allies gained a new target for their advocacy. They petitioned the LA County Board of Supervisors, and one of its members, Janice Hahn, quickly took up their cause, reaching out to state Senator Steven Bradford to sponsor a bill that would transfer the land to the descendants of the Bruce family. (Legal restrictions put in place when the land was turned over to the county in 1995 made such state-level approvals necessary.)
In September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 796. “This new law is an important step toward righting historic wrongs and restoring access to nature for all Californians,” the senior attorney noted. of the NRDC, Damon Nagami, who was an early supporter of the bill.
The long shadow of eminent domain
Although the short-term struggle has been won, the victory still cannot account for all that has been lost and remains emblematic of the larger and ongoing battle against racist land and housing policies.
While the current value of Bruce’s Beach is currently being assessed, the number undoubtedly runs into the millions – and even that figure cannot account for the cumulative generational wealth stolen from the family.
“The property that Willa and Charles Bruce owned is prime beachfront property,” says Hahn. “If they had been able to keep their property and their successful business, you can imagine their family would be as wealthy and powerful as families like the Hiltons.”
Nowadays, eminent domain remains legal. Governments can seize property and demolish homes to build parks, highways and even shopping malls for “public use”, sometimes destroying and severing communities in the process.
Although solid eminent domain demographics remain relatively rare, a study found that between 1949 and 1973one million people were displaced in the United States because of “public use” projects, and two-thirds of those people were black, about five times what one would expect given their population. A more recent study from 2009 found that disproportionate rates of eminent domain removal for residents of color have only continued. “They don’t do that in predominantly white communities,” Ward says. “They do it in black communities.”
That’s why, after successfully leading the Bruce’s Beach campaign, Ward co-founded the nonprofit where is my land, a national advocacy group working to reclaim stolen land for black families. The organization is already working with at least 200 families across the country. When those customers saw success at Bruce’s Beach, Ward says they found hope.
“We have people who are fighting, who have fought through the justice system to get land back, who have significant evidence to show that they were kicked off their property – and they still had no recourse,” says -she. “I think now is the time to address that.”
But even if all the land were restored, Ward knows that the cumulative loss of opportunity for black families is a loss that can never be fully calculated, just as the Bruce family’s losses can never be fully repaid.
“Land theft is not just land theft. This is opportunity theft for black people. It’s stealing dreams. It’s a theft to be able to buy more land, to build businesses, to send kids to college,” Ward says. “So it’s not just land taken. It’s taken by the community. It is culture taken. It is so.
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