LOS ANGELES — In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce, a young Black couple, purchased prime ocean-view property in Manhattan Beach. They built a resort and created one of the few small strips of beach in the Los Angeles area where Black visitors could enjoy the sand and water as well as hang out, eat and dance.
But some white residents, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, were unhappy with minorities coming to their area, and started to threaten and harass the Black beachgoers. Eventually, the Manhattan Beach City Council concocted a plan to take the property by way of eminent domain in 1924, under the guise of building a park. The city seized the two parcels of land in 1929, giving the Bruces only $14,500 after they fought it, and the city demolished the resort. The land sat empty and no park was built for decades.
Now an effort is underway to return the land, which is worth millions of dollars, to the Bruce family nearly a century after supporters say the property was wrongfully taken from its rightful owners.
“This is the story of a crime, it was fraud,” said Chief Duane “Yellow Feather” Shepard, a distant relative and spokesperson for the Bruce family. “They defrauded our people and they denied them their civil rights and their right to the pursuit of happiness.”
Shepard told Yahoo News that “all Charles and Willa Bruce wanted to do [was] have a legacy to hand down to their children and grandchildren.”
Shepard showed a newspaper clipping from June 27, 1912, that described the poor treatment of Black visitors who simply wanted to enjoy the beach.
“The establishment of a small summer resort for negroes at North Manhattan has created great agitation among the white property owners of adjoining land,” the article read.
But despite the harassment and roadblocks sent their way, the Bruces thrived, and visitors continued to come.
“Charles and Willa Bruce were very proud of what they had created and what they were doing for the African American community,” Shepard said. “And when I look out there, I see that beautiful view and I realize this was a remarkable thing, a remarkable place. And we’re hoping that it will be again.”
Led by Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn and California state Sen. Steven Bradford, there’s a strong push to return the property to the Bruce family. When the land was taken by the city, it was passed on to the state of California. Then, in 1995, it was transferred to Los Angeles County, but with the stipulation that it could not be given away for private use.
Hahn, like many others in the Los Angeles area, said she never knew her hometown had its own story of injustice.
“I feel a little embarrassed about how long it took me to learn the story of Bruce’s Beach,” she told Yahoo News. “Willa and Charles Bruce, who owned this property, turned it into a beach resort for African Americans, and then it was literally stolen from them under the guise of eminent domain.”
A bill that’s pending in the state Legislature, SB 796, would lift the restrictions on the county, allowing it to transfer the property back to the Bruce family. The measure unanimously passed the Senate in June and is awaiting approval from both chambers.
Supporters are confident that it will pass and head to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. But they’re hoping that will happen before the September legislative recess and Newsom’s recall election.
What sits on the property now is the Los Angeles County lifeguard training headquarters, with a stunning view of the ocean in a location that could be worth $75 million.
“It wasn’t just an injustice inflicted on Willa and Charles Bruce,” Hahn said, “it was inflicted on a generation of Bruces who would have been millionaires today if they [had] been allowed to keep this beachfront property.”
If the state legislation passes, the county has already formed a plan for how to implement the transfer of property. The report, published June 30, includes the steps it will take to transfer the land, a timeline for when that can happen, options for helping the heirs with any property tax issues and plans for the county to lease the lifeguard facility or relocate it. The entire plan is part of a new antiracism initiative created by the county.
As for the city of Manhattan Beach, it first acknowledged the seizure in 2006 by designating the area just east of the property as Bruce’s Beach Park. Officials also established a plaque to acknowledge Willa and Charles, but the language on it was criticized over its perceived inaccuracies.
Inspired by the Bruces’ story, Kavon Ward, a Los Angeles-area mother, created Justice for Bruce’s Beach, a group advocating for the restoration of the property.
“I was like, this is not right,” she told Yahoo News. “What’s even worse is that I’ve lived in that community for, at that time, maybe three years and I didn’t know about it. So myself and the other mothers decided to hold a picnic at Bruce’s Beach [in 2006] to shed light on it.”
Now she’s gone further and formed a national project to recover stolen Black land. One family she’d like to help, the descendants of Ethel and George Prioleau, had owned property not far from the Bruces’ resort. The Prioleau family is also fighting to retrieve their land, which once existed where Bruce’s Beach Park currently stands.
“They’ve been trying to get the city to provide some type of restitution for what had happened, and the city has not done anything,” Ward said.
But because the Prioleaus’ land is owned by the city and not the county, it’s a much different battle. As for the Bruces, the plan is expected to be executed once the state removes the deed restrictions.
“The land goes to Anthony Bruce, his father, his uncle and his brother, and it will be up to them what they want to do with it,” Shepard said.
Hahn acknowledged that restoring the land that belonged to Willa and Charles Bruce is overdue.
“I would tell them sorry it took so long,” she said.
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