Manhattan Beach Took Beachfront Land from a Black Family. L.A. County Has Voted to Give It Back

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this week to return Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family

UPDATE: APRIL 23, 2021 – The descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce have moved closer to reclaiming the land that was taken from their family nearly a century ago. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this week to start a process of transferring the Manhattan Beach plots, seized from the family in 1924, back to the Bruces’ heirs.

“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce, but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business,” L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement. “When I realized that the county now had ownership of the Bruces’ original property, I felt there was nothing else to do but give the property back to the direct descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.”

The County Supervisors’ vote followed the introduction earlier in the month of state legislation regarding the transfer of Bruce’s Beach. The land was held by the state until 1995, when it was transferred to L.A. County, but terms of the transfer limited the County’s ability to sell or transfer the property without an act of the California state legislature. A hearing on that bill, SB 796, is scheduled for April 27, and the full Senate is expected to vote on the matter by June 4.

APRIL 9, 2021 – Nearly a century after the City of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to take over and destroy the Black-owned seaside resort community once known as Bruce’s Beach, state legislation announced Friday could return the property to the family of original owners Charles and Willa Bruce.

The area thrived as one of the only beachfront destinations serving Black families in Los Angeles County from 1912, when Willa Bruce bought two lots on the Strand between 26th and 27th Streets—building a lodge, a small restaurant, and a dance hall—until, in 1924, the city condemned and seized the resort, along with more than two dozen Black-owned homes that had sprung up around it.

Now, as the Los Angeles Times reports, a bill proposed by state Senator Steven Bradford would allow L.A. County to return ownership of the land to the Bruce family. The plan requires state legislation in order to lift restrictions placed on the property when California transferred the lots to the county in 1995.

“We stand here today to introduce a bill that will correct this gross injustice and allow the land to be returned to the Bruce family,” Bradford told the Times. “It is my hope that this legislation will not be the last in a series of actions by the state to address centuries of atrocious actions against Black Americans.”

After years of threats and attacks by white neighbors—including a mattress fire under the porch of a Black-owned home, an incident believed to be the work of the KKK—the Bruces and the other families refused to be driven out until the city used imminent domain, saying the area desperately needed a park.

Although the property was not developed after the city takeover, nor when it was transferred to the state in 1948, and L.A. County only put a lifeguard center on the site after acquiring it, some members of the mostly white neighborhood are resisting the plan.

On Tuesday, the City Council rejected issuing an apology in favor of a “statement of acknowledgement and condemnation” of the land grab. While there is support for an apology—and a petition demanding “Justice for the Bruce family,” which has garnered nearly 15,000 signatures—some residents reject the idea of saying sorry for something done by other people 100 years ago. There is also concern that a formal mea culpa could put the city on the hook for potential litigation.

In her book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, historian Alison Rose Jefferson points out that the work of Willa and Charles Bruce and their neighbors was about a lot more than eking out some fun in the sun.

“Within the first week of them opening, there was a story in the Los Angeles Times… about this little Black resort in Manhattan Beach,” Jefferson told Los Angeles last May. “And she said in the article that she knew her rights and that she was not going to be deterred from continuing to have her business.”

Jefferson adds that the Bruces were not alone in their pursuit.

“African Americans were all over the place in terms of California… they were pursuing everything that everybody else was pursuing within the confines of the barrage of racial oppression that they sometimes would be experiencing because of the times,” Jefferson said. “They were developing various business practices around leisure just like everybody else was. They were trying to enjoy these experiences as well in these different picturesque areas and trying to have self-fulfillment and better opportunities for themselves. And these were also ways of fighting for freedom in terms of the struggle during this time period. Leisure was not an add-on in terms of civil rights—it was an essential component of civil rights and liberty.”

RELATED: A Look Back at California’s Long-Lost Black Beaches and Vacation Spots

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