California Beach Seized in 1924 From a Black Family Could Be Returned

Nearly a century ago, the city of Manhattan Beach shuttered a resort that belonged to Willa and Charles Bruce. Though the county is trying to give the land back, the city has declined to apologize.,

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Nearly a century after a Southern California city shuttered a beach resort owned by a Black couple, the city, county and state are still reckoning over how to right past wrongs.

The resort was established by Willa and Charles Bruce in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in 1912. During the Jim Crow era, they built a destination where Black tourists could swim, dance, eat and rest. But in 1924, Manhattan Beach officials invoked eminent domain and condemned the Bruces’ land.

The Bruces fought the move but ultimately lost their business and were paid $14,500 — or $224,603 today, adjusted for inflation — for the property. They moved to Los Angeles.

At the time that the land was seized, the city claimed it needed it for a public park but then left it undeveloped for more than three decades. Today it is owned by Los Angeles County and is home to a training center for lifeguards.

Last summer, activists in Manhattan Beach — along with nationwide demonstrations against racism and police brutality — prompted a resurgence of interest in the Bruces.

County and state officials are now taking steps to restore the property to the couple’s descendants.

While officials in Manhattan Beach — a small community south of Los Angeles where Black residents make up less than 1 percent of the population — plan to commemorate the Bruces with plaques and an art installation, the City Council decided this month that it would not issue a formal apology to the family.

“We acknowledge and condemn what our city forefathers and some White residents did to Willa and Charles Bruce, four other Black families and a couple dozen White families 100 years ago,” Suzanne Hadley, the mayor of Manhattan Beach, said in an email. “But I do not agree that our current city must wear a scarlet R embroidered on our chest for the end of time.”

Anthony Bruce, 38, the great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa, praised state and county officials but said he was not happy with the city. “I think an apology would be the least that they can do,” he said.

Last month, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the Bruces’ descendants. She called the seizure “an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property.”

But there was a hiccup: Under California law, the transfer would violate restrictions imposed by the state when it transferred the land to the county. Steven Bradford, a Democratic state senator, announced he was introducing a bill that would allow the transfer to happen.

“This is an example of what reparations could look like, in California and across the nation,” he said.

Manhattan Beach has been grappling with the history of the Bruces’ resort for years. Bob Brigham, a longtime high school teacher in Manhattan Beach who died in 2019, compiled research about the resort for a thesis in 1956. A park near the lifeguard training center was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2007.

In October, city officials convened a task force to consider recommendations to right historical wrongs. The undertaking prompted emotional discussions and personality clashes over history, reparations and racism in the past and in the present.

Some residents felt a subtle shift in the community.

“I feel like the energy has changed,” said Allison Hales, 40, a Manhattan Beach resident who was a member of the task force. “There’s such a divide now.”

By the time the task force’s recommended apology appeared on the City Council’s agenda last month, it had become a lightening rod. Some residents argued that an apology would cast unfair blame on current city residents. Others were aghast that Manhattan Beach would refuse to apologize for having pushed out African-Americans.

In March, an ad urging the city to reject the apology appeared in The Beach Reporter, a local newspaper.

“We have been falsely accused of being a racist city!” said the ad, which was posted anonymously and said it had been paid for by “concerned citizens” who were “a network of many.”

Ms. Hales, who said she found the ad disturbing, worked to create another one in favor of an apology. It appeared in the same newspaper and was signed by hundreds of residents.

“It was a proud moment to see the community come together and allow their names to be printed,” she said.

On April 6, in a virtual meeting that went on for more than five hours, the City Council voted, 4 to 1, to adopt a “statement of acknowledgment and condemnation” but offered no apology.

Joe Franklin, the council member who wrote the acknowledgment, said at the meeting that “if the city were to issue an apology today for what took place 100 years ago, it would be ascribing the offending events to a vast majority of our residents living here now.”

He and Ms. Hadley, the mayor, condemned the racism against the Bruces but said an apology could increase the risk of litigation against the city.

“Our legal system includes a statute of limitations for a reason,” Ms. Hadley said. “One hundred years later, the best course of action is to learn from our history, teach ourselves and our children so that it’s never repeated, and move forward vowing to do better.”

Mr. Bruce and Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of the Bruce family who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, condemned the decision not to apologize and called for the city to pay restitution.

“They keep falling over themselves trying to show they’re not racist,” Mr. Shepard said of city officials. “And everything they do shows more racism.”

Both men said the county and the State Legislature appeared to be taking steps in the right direction. Mr. Bruce added that he hoped the land transfer could set a precedent for Black families who have been dispossessed across the United States.

Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian based in Los Angeles, who wrote about the Bruces and other families in her book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era,” said that “there is some good coming from people understanding this history” but added that the city was “missing an opportunity to be a part of righting the wrongs that have been done to Black people.”

Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and a resident of Manhattan Beach who founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach to support the family’s calls for restitution, said the effort to return the land was “amazing news,” even though the county cannot take any formal action until the state bill is approved.

“We’re still doing what we need to do, behind the scenes, to make sure they have the votes,” Ms. Ward said. “We’re still working.”

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