California Gov. Newsom signs law transferring Bruce’s Beach to Black heirs

The lucrative beachfront property was improperly taken from its original owners in the 1920s

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California Governor Gavin Newsom used his pen to right a decades-old wrong in Southern California.

Bruce’s Beach, now a part of the wealthy Manhattan Beach area, was once owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, who purchased the property in 1912. The two parcels, along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay, were the site of the first West Coast resort for African Americans, reports KTLA. It once included a lodge, cafe, dance hall, and dressing tents, per the report.

After an attempt from the Ku Klux Klan to burn the resort down and harassment from their white neighbors, the Manhattan Beach City Council took the land from the Bruces via eminent domain in 1924, saying a public park would be built on the site. But no park ever came and the land languished; it was first transferred to the state in 1948, then to Los Angeles in 1995 with restrictions that made the city unable to sell or transfer it.

Ultimately a county lifeguard training station was built on the land. The Bruces, who sued, received $14,500 for their land after years in court and were forced to move out of Manhattan Beach. They worked as chefs for other business owners for the remainder of their lives, per the Los Angeles Times.

Bruce's Beach www.theGrio.com
(Credit: Getty Images)

“The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them,” Janice Hahn, Los Angeles County Supervisor, told KTLA. Hahn was the driving force behind the story of Bruce’s Beach being told and the land being returned to Bruce’s descendants.

Hahn, along with Kavon Ward – who founded JusticeforBrucesbeach.com – and Anthony Bruce, the great, great-grandson of Willa and Charles, was instrumental in advocating for the land to be returned. This was despite the opposition of the 99-percent-white Manhattan Beach community.

“And this was an injustice inflicted not just upon Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business,” Hahn said.

On Thursday, Newsom signed Senate Bill 796, with Anthony Bruce and other dignitaries in attendance at Bruce’s Beach. An urgency clause in the bill will allow for the land to be transferred quickly, according to Thursday’s Los Angeles Times report. After signing the bill, he handed the pen to Bruce.

“As Governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family,” Newsom said.

“I really believe this can be catalytic. What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage: Once a mind is stretched it never goes back to its original form.”

Bruce’s grandfather, Bernard, was embittered by the legal battle that his parents went through. Anthony’s own father left the state rather than relive his family’s sad legacy. Anthony Bruce, who now lives in Florida, said he’s hopeful that today’s ceremony can begin some healing.

Willa Charles Bruce thegrio.com
(Credit: Bruce Family)

“We do thank God, because this is something that we’ve been praying for, for decades,” he said, per the Times. “Hopefully this is the start of a new beginning for us.”

There are still details to be worked out, including identifying all descendants and making sure the law can withstand any legal challenges. While the land transfer is happening, it remains to be determined just how that will take place. One idea is that the land could be transferred back to the county as a ground lease so that lifeguard operations would continue, but the family would receive market rent for the land.

Ward, who was inspired to start the website after moving to Manhattan Beach four years ago and dealing with racism from other mothers, says she’s now expanding her efforts to reach other African Americans whose land has been transferred or sold by dubious means.

“My heart, my spirit, my soul has been in this from the beginning…This took audacious courage,” Ward told the Los Angeles Times. Her new, national organization is called Where Is My Land, with a mission of demanding overdue property justice.

“I am empowered to continue that audacious courage as I move forward in helping other Black families obtain restorative and reparative justice,” she said.

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