$75-million California beach seized from Black family in 1924 set to be returned to descendants

By Brisa Colón
May 17, 2021

MANHATTAN BEACH, CA- Manhattan Beach attracts over 3.8 million visitors a year. They come to enjoy the sun, water, and iconic California weather. Underneath the beautiful surface, lies a dark history of racism and racial injustice. 

Nearly one century ago, Willa and Charles Bruce moved West in search of a better life. In 1912, the two purchased a beachfront property in Manhattan Beach for $1,225. They started a resort for African American people to safely come and enjoy the beach and spend time with family. But, the Bruce family and the African Americans that became neighbors with the Bruce’s received a lot of harassment and were even victims of hate crimes from KKK members that wanted them to leave the area. 

“When we think of some of the injustices that have been done in the United states toward African Americans, we often think of the South and we often don’t think of California and our own history of racism and the ways that we didn’t have designated Jim Crow whites only signs, but we did have restrictive covenants and things that kept African Americans out of certain communities. And then these kinds of practices where land was actually taken from African Americans.”

Kimberly Nao

They insisted on living there despite the harassment, but in 1924 the City of Manhattan Beach took the land away from them based on eminent domain. According to Cornell Law School, “eminent domain refers to the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use.” The city claimed that there was an “urgent need” to build a public park. Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian who has spent years researching the history of Black Americans in California, called it a “racist act” and states that, “It was taken from them through some racist crime, use of public power, in terms of the eminent domain proceedings, because they didn’t need to take that land for a park, there was other land that they could’ve used for a park. So they did it because of anti black bias.”

Despite the “urgent” need to build a park, it wasn’t built until about 30 years after being taken away from the Bruce’s. The park was initially called Bayview Terrace Park, and not until 2007 was the park renamed “Bruce’s Beach.”

In light of recent outrage following the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, many are standing up and advocating for the Bruce family. Tensions are high as more people hear about the story of the Bruce’s and are calling attention to the issue. Stevi Dowells, a visitor of Bruce’s Beach Park, said that she is excited about the allies, “I realized that they have been fighting for Bruce’s beach for a long time and nothing happened. I want our people to refocus. Don’t focus on the anti-black people, but focus on those who have decided to help us. Without their help, Bruce’s Beach would still be fought for; it would not be won.” 

“This is personal, you know it was emotional thinking about coming here. My kids swim close by. I didn’t know the history at first, and when I got a chance to find out , I wanted to share this with my kids. I want to know about my culture and be proud of it.”

Ari Easley-Garcia

Through all of the activism and outrage at this story, politicians and city leaders are moving to make change happen and right the wrongs that happened back nearly a century ago. Earlier this year, the Manhattan Beach City Council held a meeting regarding Bruce’s Beach, and in that meeting, they decided to condemn the past actions but chose not to apologize to Bruce’s for the harm done in the past. Many were outraged by this decision, bringing even more attention to the story. 

This last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed motions on items 8 & 9, “Returning Bruce’s beach to its Rightful Owners” and “LA County to Sponsor Senate Bill 796.” Senate Bill 796 was voted on by the Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee unanimously. The next step is to have the Senate Floor vote on it and then the Assembly Natural Resources and Appropriations Committees and then an Assembly Floor vote. Following all of those votes, the Governor can go ahead and sign the bill into law. There is still time to go and steps to take until the Bruce’s officially get their land back, but activists are optimistic about the road towards justice. 

The event seen in the video was an event put on by a group called Active Advocate. They focused on “healing for black lives.” The group’s goal was to perform breathwork and a march to heal following the trauma that took place in 2020. In a press release, the group stated their intent with their event, which “serves as a symbolic march to honor restorative justice for the black family that once owned bruce’s Beach.” Tyson Suzuki led the event and explained why events such as these are so important.

“We need more healing events. We need more uncomfortable conversations. We can’t just sweep things under the rug, we have to talk. For me, I can;t just continuously sit around and hope that things will get better. We have to be active advocates that are out there and really vocalizing how we feel and vocalizing what we want and demand it. Because if we don’t, this is another reason why history will repeat itself.”

Tyson Suzuki

As the story continues to be written in history, the question of reparations or restitution is still being answered. Dr. Alison Jefferson clarified the difference between reparation and restitution and what both would look like in Bruce’s situation, “If the county is able to go forward with what it is intending, it will be a very important step in terms of African Americans and restitution of some of the social injustices that have happened to African Americans around the country. I don’t know that this is reparations in the classic sense of what reparations are, but restitution certainly. Reparations are where everybody is going to benefit. Right now, not everybody is not going to benefit from the Bruce’s property that the county owns. I mean, spiritually, it is very important for everybody. At this point there has been no determination as to what is going to happen as it relates to what restitution means. Many activists are speaking out and continue to advocate for this big step. 

“What we really want is a push towards reparations towards African Americans overall. I want to see that for African Americans, and I want to see equity for all groups in this country.”

Kimberly Nao

If Senate Bill 796 passes, the Bruces have various options. They could lease the land back to the county, and the descendants would be the landlords; they could outright get paid approximately 75 million dollars, or they can reclaim it and do what they wish with the land. Dr. Jefferson warns of possible zone ordinances that could be put into place to regulate what the Bruce’s can and cannot do with it, so a lot of possibilities are at play. 

“We can also see with this particular story why history is important to know. Because if you don’t understand your history, you can’t really understand how you got to where you are today, and then you cannot understand how to impact the future based on the information that you have that you gained from the past.”

Dr. Alison Jefferson

Knowing and sharing this story is essential because the Bruce’s aren’t the only family that had something like this happen to them. Structural racism and racism at its core still exists, and activists continue to do what they can to stand for what is right and for justice.

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