A bill that will help clear the way for Los Angeles County to return a piece of Manhattan Beach coastline to the descendants of a Black family who had the land stripped away by the city nearly a century ago was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do, and I want to apologize to the Bruce family for the injustice that was done to them a century ago,” Newsom said to cheers from the crowd gathered for the signing ceremony near the property.
“I say that as a proud Californian, but also mindful that we always haven’t had a proud past,” he said.
The public seizure of the Bruce’s Beach property has long stained the history of Manhattan Beach, particularly in the past year amid a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice. Willa and Charles Bruce purchased their land in 1912 for $1,225. They eventually added some other parcels and created a beach resort catering to Black residents, who had few options at the time for enjoying the California coast. Complete with a bath house, dance hall and cafe, the resort attracted other Black families who purchased adjacent land and created what they hoped would be a oceanfront retreat.
But the resort quickly became a target of the area’s white populace, leading to acts of vandalism, attacks on vehicles of Black visitors and even a 1920 attack by the Ku Klux Klan. The Bruces were undeterred and continued operating their small enclave, but under increasing pressure, the city moved to condemn their property and other surrounding parcels in 1924, seizing it through eminent domain under the pretense of planning to build a city park.
The resort was forced out of business, and the Bruces and other Black families ultimately lost their land in 1929. The families sued, claiming they were the victims of a racially motivated removal campaign. The Bruces were eventually awarded some damages, as were other displaced families. But the Bruces were unable to reopen their resort anywhere else in town.
Despite the city claiming the land was needed for a city park, the property sat vacant for decades. It was not until 1960 that a park was built on a portion of the seized land, with city officials fearing the evicted families could take new legal action if the property wasn’t used for the purpose for which it was seized. The exact parcel of land the Bruces owned was transferred to the state, and then to the county in 1995.
The city park that now sits on a portion of the land seized by the city has borne a variety of names over the years. But it was not until 2006 that the city agreed to rename the park “Bruce’s Beach” in honor of the evicted family. That honor, however, has been derided by critics as a hollow gesture toward the family.
“I knew there was one thing to do, and that was to give the property back,” Hahn said during Thursday’s ceremony.
The county, however, could not transfer the property without state legislation because of a deed restriction on the land. The legislation signed by Newsom — authored by Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena — essentially lifts the restriction to allow the county to transfer the land.
“The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back,” Hahn said.
Signing of the legislation, however, does not automatically mean the land will be transferred. More action on a local level will still be required. The county in July approved a roadmap for carrying out the move. In part, it calls for the county Treasurer and Tax Collector Department to work with the County Public Administrator’s Office to determine the Bruces’ legal heirs.
The county will also have to negotiate an agreement for the land transfer, one that eases the property tax burden on the descendants when they take possession. The county will also have to find land to relocate a lifeguard facility at the site. The county CEO’s Office and Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative is expected to report back to the Board of Supervisors this fall with further details, after evaluating the impacts of the property transfer. The plan did not provide a date by which the land would need to formally be transferred.
During Thursday’s ceremony, the Bruces’ great-great-grandson, Anthony Bruce, read a prayer of thanks, saying in part, “The Bruces have found mercy in the unfailing love of Jesus Christ.”
“I want to thank everyone who is here today,” he said.