California is taking steps to return land to the black couple’s heirs

STEFANIE DAZIO, Associated Press

Almost a century ago, white leaders in a Southern California city robbed a black family of their best beach and heritage.

Descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce – including the couple’s great-great grandson – returned to the Manhattan Beach crime scene Thursday to watch Governor Gavin Newsom sign the law allowing ownership of the property to be transferred to the family.

The move was hailed as a major milestone in the battle for reparations and the return of land stolen from people of color.

“There are other families waiting for that day to return their land,” Patricia Bruce, a cousin of Willa and Charles Bruce, told the Associated Press.

Amid rampant racial segregation, the Bruces built the first black resort on the west coast in 1912. Located on one of Southern California’s signature beaches with rows of million dollar homes, it included a lodge, coffee shop, dance hall, and changing tents.

The Bruces and their patrons faced constant racism and harassment. There was even an attempt to burn the resort down. Manhattan Beach City Council eventually used a significant domain to rob the Bruces of land that was supposed to be used as a park in the 1920s.

But the land lay idle for years until it was transferred to the state in 1948. In 1995 it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. It came with restrictions that limited the ability to sell or transfer property that could only be lifted by a new state law.

Legislation, unanimously passed by state lawmakers, was necessary to begin the complex legal process of transferring ownership of what was once known as Bruce’s Beach.

“Getting here was far from easy,” said Kavon Ward, a black resident who learned the property’s history and founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach.

Ward also co-founded Where Is My Land, an organization that aims to return land taken from Black Americans and receive a refund. The organization is reviewing several other unspecified projects, including one in California, to see if its goals are possible.

With half a dozen descendants of the couple in attendance Thursday, Newsom apologized for how the land was taken before signing the bill during a ceremony on the property.

“The Bruces have found mercy in the infallible love of Jesus Christ,” said Anthony Bruce, the family’s great-great-grandson, as he read a prayer during the ceremony.

Newsom suggested the move could mark the beginning of broader redress.
“That can be catalytic,” he said. “What we are doing here today can be done and replicated differently everywhere.”

District chairwoman Janice Hahn, who led a government push to transfer the land, said the heirs would almost certainly be millionaires now if the property had not been taken.

“The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and today’s law will return it,” Hahn said.

Newsom said the Bruces could have become like other leading Southern California entrepreneurs, like the Getty family, famous for their oil wealth and art collection.

The Bruces property on the south coast of Santa Monica Bay comprises two lots. The county’s lifeguard training building is now there, along a scenic beach walk called The Strand, which is lined with luxury homes overlooking the beach.

In Manhattan Beach, an upscale coastal suburb of Los Angeles, 84% of the 35,000 residents are white and 0.8% black, according to the city’s website. That year, the city council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to evict the Bruces and several other black families.

The county, meanwhile, has outlined steps needed to move the transfer forward, including assessing the value of the packages and trying to find ways to reduce the tax burden on the heirs.

The county also needs to review the Bruces’ legal heirs and possibly find a new location for the lifeguard headquarters. One possibility would be for the heirs to lease the land back to the district for further use.

Patricia Bruce, 65, of Hawthorne, said the family had not yet decided what to do with the property.

Associate press writer John Antczak contributed to this report.

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