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Los Angeles County Looks to Return Black-Owned Beach Front Land to Descendants of Original Owners
By Betti Halsell, Contributing Writer
Published March 17, 2021

The monument plaque at Bruce’s Beach park in Manhattan Beach. (File Photo)

 

Bruce’s Beach has a historical past, one that is similar to other dark chapters found in the context of the American story. The ocean wave plot was named after the original owners, Willa and Charles Bruce; they were the first Black landowners in Manhattan Beach. They purchased a couple coastal lots in 1912.

However, the City of Manhattan found a way to take ownership of their property.  Nearly a century later, Los Angeles County is revisiting the prospects of returning proper ownership of the beachfront to the descendants of the Bruce family.

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Located on 2600 Highland Ave. in Manhattan Beach, CA, Bruce’s Beach served as an oasis for people of color looking to enjoy the scenic coast during times of segregation. According to L.A. Times, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased a piece of paradise for $1,225 ($33,034) and eventually bought another lot as well. Other Black families followed suit buying estates alongside them, and a Black community of beachfront property owners was created.

The hatred for such growth was not hidden; the L.A. Times reported that the vandalism and sabotage to Black-owned beach properties happened routinely during the Jim Crow era. The goal was to drive Black people out of these areas and have them sell their land. City officials would gradually obtain the Bruce’s beach, and other Black-owned coastal plots through an ordinant known as eminent domain.

Charles and Willa Bruce’s wedding photo. The couple started the first Black-owned business in Manhattan Beach. (File Photo)

Through the eminent domain procedure, certain members of the Manhattan community allotted City officials the power to acquire privately-owned properties and reinvent the lots for public use. The urgent takeover of Bruce’s land was for a public park.

The Bruce family fought for years in litigation; they asked for $120,000 ($3,203,044 ) for loss of property and damages. The Bruces received $14,000, which is $300,000 in present day, and other families received far less than that.

According to the source mentioned prior, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn stated, “The property that was once the Bruce’s is now owned by the County and I want L.A. County to be part of righting this wrong.” She continued, “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.”

One of the direct descendants of the original owners of Bruce’s Beach Anthony Bruce, told L.A. Times, “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.” He continued, “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.”

Californiabeaches.com described the present Bruce’s Beach as the following, “… Thanks to its picturesque setting, the well-manicured lawns that overlook the shore are the site of frequent picnics …” As beautiful as the surface sounds, the story of Bruce’s Beach is tainted below its depths. The County has recognized the biased decisions that were passed in 1924 by the City of Manhattan Beach, and now they are seeing through a new lens of awareness, and want to work on righting a long-standing wrong.

Mrs. Willa Bruce (left) with her daughter-in-law and sister on Bruce’s Beach in the 1920s (CAAM)

This pain in deception has weighed on the Bruce family for generations; most of the members of the family cannot bring themselves to speak on the topic publicly. There is a deep hurt among them, and it needs a paralleled healing. According to ABC News, the beach that was stripped away from the Bruce family is now worth $75 million dollars, and members of the County are looking for opportunities to return the land to the rightful owners.

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A community task force has formed around the subject and has been rallying behind the cause, to bring awareness of the truth behind the beach’s covered-up history. However, there have been critiques on the organization’s diversity level and lack of working directly with the Bruce family.

The goal for everyone involved is to make sure the authentic story of Bruce’s Beach is told, and the justice is projected over the rights of ownership. The task force is looking to present a course of action later this year to community leadership.

The overturn of this land would bring in a new light of equality. seen over the horizon of the California coast. Its past transgression cannot be re-written, but the correction of the injustice will create a new future for the Bruce family. for generations to come.

Mrs. Willa Bruce (left) with her daughter-in-law and sister on Bruce’s Beach in the 1920s (CAAM)

The story of Willa and Charles paints a wider picture of wealth that lived in the Black community, one that is not often talked about. Their pain of that legacy being taken away has lived with the Bruce family through their name’s sake. A century later and the recognition that is instrumental to the healing has finally come.

 

 

Categories: History | Local | News
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