A black family whose ancestors built a seaside resort near Los Angeles a century ago, only to have it taken from them by racist policies, will have the land returned, officials announced on Friday.
Los Angeles County plans to return prime beachfront property in Manhattan Beach that could now be worth more than $72 million to descendants of the black couple, Willa and Charles Bruce, who built a seaside resort for African Americans.
The story of the Bruce family caught the eye of a Los Angeles county supervisor who earlier this year started looking into what could be done to make things right, according to ABC.
Advocates and others had for years been telling the story of the Bruce family – and the remaining members of the family itself had been speaking out over the injustice.
The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach.
‘It is the county’s intention to return this property,’ said Janice Hahn, the member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors who had first started looking into the issue, at a press conference on Friday to announce the news.
Charles and Willa Bruce moved to Manhattan Beach from New Mexico and bought land in 1912
The beachfront lot, which now has a red-rooved lifeguard station, will be returned to the Bruces. The parking lot behind it, and the park, were not the Bruce’s and will remain the city’s
The site, known as Bruce Beach, now has a county lifeguard training headquarters building on the property. It is along some of the most coveted coastline in Southern California.
The property encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by the Bruces, who built the first West Coast resort for black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches.
They built a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent.
Initially it was known as Bruce’s Lodge.
‘Bruce’s Beach became a place where black families traveled from far and wide to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach,’ Hahn said.
It did not last long.
The Bruces and their customers were harassed by white neighbors, and the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn it down.
Bruce Beach is seen in the 1920s, when the land was owned by Charles and Willa Bruce
The Manhattan Beach seafront lot was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2006, after its original owners
Charles Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City, so it was Willa Bruce bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.
Manhattan Beach today
White – 78.2%
Asian – 13.5%
Hispanic – 8%
African American – 0.5%
Average house price: $2 million plus
Average per capita income: $96,343
High school or higher education: 98%
Source: US Census
She had purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets.
‘Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,’ she told The Los Angeles Times in 1912.
‘But I own this land and I am going to keep it.’
The Manhattan Beach City Council finally used eminent domain to take the land away from the Bruces in the 1920s, purportedly for use as a park.
The Bruces fought the order in court, but lost their case. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.
‘The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them,’ Hahn said.
‘And this was an injustice inflicted not just upon 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.’
The value of the property has not been assessed, officials said.
However, homes along the sea front, known as The Strand, regularly sell for around $20 million.
One blog estimated that the land was worth $72 million.
The family are yet to say whether they will sell it for developers, or keep it in the family.
A return of the land could include an option for the Bruce descendants to lease the land back to the county for continued use.
The pale blue lifeguard tower can be seen in front of what was the Bruce family land.
The Bruce descendants will reclaim the lot, and will be able to lease it to the city if they wish.
Their case aroused anger. Members of the NAACP participated in a ‘swim-in’ to assert their right to the sea in 1927, and several black beachgoers were arrested that year.
One of their descendants, Anthony Bruce, 38, said it was time to correct a historic wrong.
‘I just want justice for my family,’ he told The New York Times.
He now lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.
Another descendant described the 1920s decision as a ‘scar’ on his family.
‘What we want is restoration of our land to us, and restitution for the loss of revenues,’ said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.
‘It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally.’
Duane Shepard said that the forced sale of the land was a ‘scar’ on his family’s history
Both descendants told the paper that the issue was about more than just their family.
‘We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,’ said Shepard. ‘It’s happened all over the United States.’
The Bruce’s Beach decision comes at a time of reckoning in relation to land rights.
Last month Evanston in Illinois became the first city to announce it would pay reparations to black homeowners, in recognition of the horrors of slavery.
After lying unused for years, the land was transferred to the state of California in 1948 and in 1995 it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations and maintenance.
The last transfer came with restrictions that limit the ability to sell or transfer the property and can only be lifted through a new state law, Hahn said.
State Senator Steven Bradford said that on Monday he will introduce legislation, SB 796, that would exempt the land from those restrictions.
‘After so many years we will right this injustice,’ he said.
If the law passes, the transfer to the descendants would have to be approved by the county’s five-member Board of Supervisors, said Liz Odendahl, Hahn’s director of communications.
Manhattan Beach is now an affluent city of about 35,000 people on the south shore of Santa Monica Bay.
Its picturesque pier juts into swells prized by surfers, and luxury residences have replaced many of the beach houses along an oceanfront walk called The Strand.
According to Census data, its population is 78 per cent white and 0.5 per cent black.
The current City Council this week formally acknowledged and condemned city leaders’ efforts in the early 20th century to displace the Bruces and several other black families, but stopped short of formally apologizing, Southern California News Group reported.
‘We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years,’ a document approved by the council says.
‘And the actions we will take together, to the best of our abilities, in deeds and in words, to reject prejudice and hate and promote respect and inclusion.’
A hill rising steeply behind the beachfront property has a beach parking lot and above that is an ocean-view city park that was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2006.
The lot and park were not part of the Bruces’ property and would not be part of a transfer to the family, Odendahl said.