L.A. County returns Bruce’s Beach to namesake family nearly a century after racist land grab

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L.A. County returns Bruce’s Beach to namesake family nearly a century after racist land grab

View of the park at Bruce’s Beach, once a thriving Black seaside resort in the L.A. County beach town of Manhattan Beach. (ChildOfMidnight/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

The great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black couple who owned and operated a seaside resort for Black beachgoers in Los Angeles County during the early 20th century, have at long-last taken possession of the land that was wrongfully seized from their family almost 100 years ago.

First opening in 1912, the resort was a rarity at the time: a beautiful beachfront destination where Black Angelenos could relax and unwind during an era when most public beaches were off limits to non-white visitors. Considered the first Black beach resort on the West Coast, the property, located in the predominately white community of Manhattan Beach in L.A.’s South Bay region, was stolen from Willa and Charles Bruce via eminent domain in 1924 under the pretense that the city planned to construct a park on the land. Surrounding properties, some also Black-owned, were also seized with landowners receiving just a tiny fraction of what their property was actually worth.

In addition to haven their property stripped from them by the powers that be, the Bruces along with other Black business owners and residents in Manhattan Beach as well as patrons of the resort, many of whom traveled from across Southern California, suffered considerable harassment from the city’s white officials, residents, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Still, the resort and the community that was built up around it continued to thrive until it was condemned and the property was pilfered by the city.

Given that the move was fueled purely by racism and not a desire to create new public space, the promised park was never built and the former resort site, its structures including a cafe, dance hall, and bathhouse long-ago razed by the City of Manhattan Beach, sat undeveloped for decades and was ultimately transferred to the state. A city park, first known as Bayview Terrace Park, was eventually realized on a section of the property in the 1960s; the historically Black beach-park was renamed as Bruce’s Beach in 2007 .

The transfer of the prime beachfront parcel—transferred from the state to L.A. County in 1995—back to the Bruce family was completed yesterday during a joyous, historic ceremony held near the property that marked the conclusion of a years-long campaign to correct a bigoted land grab that devastated the Bruce family almost a century ago. During a particularly emotional moment of the ceremony, L.A. County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan bestowed a certified copy of the land transfer to Anthony Bruce, the great-great grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce.

The complex legal process of transferring the deed for the land to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce was formally set into motion last September with the signing of Senate Bill SB796, a.k.a Bruce’s Beach bill, by California Governor Gavin Newsom. State Senator Steven Bradford, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, authored the legislation.

Per the agreement approved earlier this week by the L.A County Board of Supervisors that followed a history-making vote in late June to proceed with the transfer, the great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, Derrick and Marcus Bruce, will lease the two adjacent oceanfront parcels in question to the county for $413,000 per year so that the L.A. County Fire Department can continue to operate a lifeguard training facility now located at the site. Located just north of downtown Manhattan Beach, the two parcels together span roughly 7,000 square feet.

A clause within the agreement stipulates that Derrick and Marcus Bruce can sell their land to the county further down the line with the caveat that the sale cannot exceed $20 million. Their great-grandparents purchased the oceanfront lot in 1912 for $1,225. Today, Manhattan Beach, famous as a frequent filming location and as a regional destination for surfing and beach volleyball, is one of the priciest enclaves in L.A. County. It also remains overwhelmingly white.

“We can’t change the past and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago, but this is a start,” said L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn at yesterday’s transfer ceremony. Alongside fellow supervisor Holly Mitchell, Hahn led the somewhat byzantine effort to return ownership of Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce Family and to bring greater awareness to the staggering injustice that had occurred in Manhattan Beach. As Hahn explained during the ceremony, the land transfer will provide the family with an opportunity to “start rebuilding the generational wealth that was denied to them.”

“We aren’t giving property to anyone today,” elaborated Mitchell, who serves as board chair. “We are returning property that was erroneously, and based on fear and hate, taken from them.”

In a statement shared by Mitchell’s office, Anthony Bruce relayed that the transfer of land back to its legal heirs was a “day we weren’t sure would ever come.”

“It means the world to us, and we know how important this is to people across the country,” he said of the effort. “But it is also bittersweet. My great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles Bruce sacrificed to open a business that gave Black people a place to gather and socialize, and Manhattan Beach took it from them because of the color of their skin.”

“It destroyed them financially,” he added of the city’s fraudulent 1924 land grab. “It destroyed their chance at the American Dream. I wish they could see what has happened today. We hope this opens people’s eyes to a part of American history that isn’t talked about enough, and we think it’s a step toward trying to right the wrongs of the past.”

You can read more about the history of Bruce’s Beach here. The full dedication ceremony can be viewed in full below.