Nearly 100 years have gone by, and a California city is trying to right a wrong committed against Black residents.
In 1924, the city of Manhattan Beach used a legal tool to steal an area known as Bruce’s Beach from Black property owners Willa and Charles Bruce. Los Angeles County currently owns some of that land and has announced that 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,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said 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.”
Manhattan Beach is one of LA County’s more affluent areas, with 35,000 residents, The Los Angeles Times reported. Black residents make up less than 1 percent of the population.
About 97 years ago, Manhattan Beach’s city council voted to use eminent domain to take property away from the Bruces, the first Black landowners in Manhattan Beach.
The Bruces bought their two plots in 1912 for $1,225 and developed a popular resort community for Los Angeles’ Black residents, who had few choices for recreation due to racism.
“It’s not an oral history of hearsay, it’s in the newspaper of record of the time,” said Alison Rose Jefferson, a local historian and author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era,” according to NBC Los Angeles.
The harassment started on the first day that the business was open in Manhattan Beach.
The area’s Black residents were forced or coerced off of their property. “The first big weekend they had in 1912, the white folks put up barriers on the beach in front of the Bruce’s 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 one-hour parking signs around here, they slashed people’s tires at different times.”
There were attacks by the KKK on the city’s Black residents.
By 1924, the city had claimed the Bruce’s land, and that of other Black property owners in the area, 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 Bruces and other families did receive small settlements from the city, but no way near what their land is valued at today.
The Bruces and three other Black families sued the city, citing racial prejudice. The Bruces wanted $120,000 in compensation — $70,000 for their two lots and $50,000 in damages. Another couple asked for $36,000. But after years of litigation, the Bruces received just $14,500. The other families, Black and white, received between $1,200 and $4,200 per lot.
Twitter users discussed the racist history of Manhattan Beach.
“So very typical….n issues like this continue to this day. Glad the Times brought it 2 our attention,” one person tweeted.
Another tweeted simply, “#SystemicRacism.”
A park 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, pushed to change the name of to mark the area’s history, NBC Los Angeles reported.
The descendants of the Bruce family have been trying to get the land back for years. They also want to be compensated for their loss.
“This wasn’t something that Charles and Willa decided. They decided this for them,” said Anthony Bruce, a Bruce family descendant. “This was a racial injustice and it needs to be corrected.”
Manhattan Beach resident Kavon Ward has been helping and started a petition and Facebook page.
“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.”
Recently, the city launched a 15-member task force, but Ward, Jefferson, and Bruce have criticized it for not having enough Black members, and not working directly with the Bruce family.
According to the petition on Change.org, there are several issues the Bruce family wants to be addressed.
They want the current plaque naming the location Bruce’s Beach to be replaced. “The current plaque fails to give an accurate depiction of events and fails to mention KKK involvement, the harassment that Black visitors faced while enjoying the beach, and the circumstances regarding the eminent domain seizure of the land. City leaders must acknowledge and address the history of Bruce’s Beach and the role of the city in seizing and condemning the property. We demand that the current plaque be replaced by a historically accurate plaque that is meant to commemorate Bruce’s Beach, the owners, and their bravery so that residents and visitors can learn the true history of the land,” the petition reads.
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The family also seeks restoration and restitution as well as a public statement from the City of Manhattan Beach to address the park’s history and its future commitment to change the current racial intolerant climate in the city administration, law enforcement, and the community as a whole.
The task force is expected to formally present its recommendations about the future of Bruce’s Beach to the city council later this year.
“Bruce’s Beach was an injustice in our town’s history,” said Gary McAulay, president of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, in an L.A. Times interview. “The facts are tragic enough, but in the nearly 100 years since then, the facts have often been corrupted in the retelling.”