In righting a wrong — some might say it’s better late than never — even if later means nearly 100 years have gone by.
Nearly a century after the city of Manhattan Beach used a legal tool to take an area known as Bruce’s Beach away from Black property owners, Los Angeles County, which currently owns some of that land, tells NBC4 it is looking at returning it to the descendants of the Bruce family.
“The property that was once the Bruce’s is now owned by the County and I want LA County to be part of righting this wrong,” said Janice Hahn, LA County Supervisor, in a statement. “I am looking at everything from repurposing the property in a way that tells the history of Bruce’s Beach to actually giving the property back to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce.”
Hahn’s statement was released amid growing awareness of the racist injustice carried out by Manhattan Beach’s city council in 1924 when members voted to use eminent domain to take property away from Willa and Charles Bruce, the first Black landowners in Manhattan Beach.
The Bruce’s bought their first plot in 1912 right along the strand between what is currently 26th and 27th streets, developing a flourishing resort community for Los Angeles’ Black residents who endured discrimination and intimidation from some of their white neighbors.
“It’s not an oral history of hearsay, it’s in the newspaper of record of the time,” said Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and author. “That harassment went on the first day that this business was open here in Manhattan Beach.”
Discrimination came in many forms, all to try and force the Bruce family and other Black families to sell.
“The first big weekend they had in 1912, the white folks put up barriers on the beach in front of the Bruces' property so that they couldn’t get onto the shore and they had to walk a half-mile up the way to get to the beach,” Jefferson said. “They changed ordinances so there were only 1-hour parking signs around here, they slashed people’s tires at different times.”
By 1924, the city claimed it needed the Bruces' land, and that of other Black property owners up the street, to build a park.
“In the early 1920s, there a couple of white citizens here who have gotten upset, and they’re feeling like there’s a Negro invasion,” Jefferson explained. “Eminent domain proceedings were implemented to get the Black people out of here.”
By 1929, the Bruce’s and other families received small settlements from the city, worth far less than what their land is worth today.
The story of the injustice went virtually unspoken for decades.
“Over the years, the story of what was going on at this area was not discussed,” Jefferson explained. “It was discussed in hush tones because I think some people in the community, they realized how nasty and bigoted they were, but there was nothing they felt that they could do.”
Today, the land that once belonged to the Bruce family is owned by LA County and occupied by a lifeguard headquarters.
The park up the street, which was built more than three decades after the eminent domain proceedings, was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in the mid-2000s, when Mitch Ward, Manhattan Beach’s first Black mayor, helped change the name of the park to mark the area’s history, but a plaque installed during the renaming has been criticized for being inaccurate and incomplete.
“The first thing we need to get right is the information about the plaque. We need to make sure the plaque tells the exact story about what happened,” said Anthony Bruce, the last living direct descendent of the Willa and Charles Bruce. “That was our property. And they removed it with eminent domain, which was pretty much like using the law to pretty much commit a crime.”
Bruce is carrying on his family’s longtime efforts to get the land back and be compensated for their loss.
“This wasn’t something that Charles and Willa decided. They decided this for them,” Bruce said. “This was a racial injustice and it needs to be corrected.”
Helping with the effort is Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach resident who has spent much of the last year raising awareness about the history of Bruce’s Beach by starting a petition and Facebook page.
“Initially, there were folks who I started the group with who wanted the plaque to be changed, and that’s great right, the plaque should be changed and the truth should be known, but for me that wasn’t taking it far enough,” Ward said. “This land was stolen from the family. There’s knowledge of it and so the land needs to be given back to the family.”
In response to the newly raised awareness, the city launched a task force, not without its share of controversy, to address the future of Bruce’s Beach, including changing the plaque to be more accurate, creating artwork and education to bring more awareness to the area’s history and issuing a formal apology to the family.
“This family was removed from their land, they had a business, and they lost 95 years of business enterprise as a result of it,” Ward said. “So they need to be compensated for that and they ultimately need to be compensated for having their civil rights violated.”
However, the 15-member task force with alternates has been criticized by Ward, Jefferson, and Bruce for not having enough Black members, not working directly with the Bruce family, and their desires for restitution.
The task force is expected to formally present its recommendations about the future of Bruce’s Beach to the city council later this year.
Regardless, Ward and Bruce say they’re thrilled to hear that LA County is considering returning the land to the Bruce family.
“Remember, this is the entrepreneur family of the Bruce’s here. So if we don’t get the money, all we need is the land back anyway,” Bruce said. “In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, we know that all men are created equal, so that’s what we’re looking for. We’re just looking for justice for our family.”