Photograph: USA Today
Joining the national moment of racial reckoning Los Angeles County Supervisors and California State Senate Legislators have affirmatively voted with support on the first steps to return beachfront property to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, from whom it was wrongfully taken in 1929. Kavon Ward leading the Justice for Bruce’s Beach initiative with the Bruce family descendants has guided this land restitution effort.
A racist land grab forced the Bruce and several other Black families out of Manhattan Beach when African Americans had limited coastal access. The city of Manhattan Beach has struggled with the ugly history for generations, and in 2006, it renamed the site of the razed resort community Bruce’s Beach.
Jim Crow era resort and recreation places enjoyed by African Americans such as Bruce’s Beach, Santa Monica, Eureka Villa, Lake Elsinore, Corona’s Parkrdige Country Club and others that flourished for different time durations between the 1900s to the 1960s were sites of pleasure as well as a powerful challenge to anti-Black public policies and private practices. They were sites of contestation in the struggle for civil rights and freedom. They were also sites of identity offering African Americans of all classes broader visions of themselves and their communities.
African American pioneers in the early twentieth century sought to seize their California dream of new life opportunities in a beautiful landscape and warm climate just like White migrants did. In a time of significant migration into Los Angeles of African Americans from the South — they attempted to create a vibrant community in Los Angeles and various exurban areas, as Manhattan Beach, while they battled rising resistance from White Americans starting in the 1920s.
As of June 2, the next step to returning the Bruce’s beachfront property to their descendants was meet with a unanimous full Senate floor vote on Senate Bill (SB) 796. If this bill is enacted Los Angeles County would have the authority to return the two oceanfront parcels in the city of Manhattan Beach to the descendants of the original African American owners who operated a resort called Bruce’s Lodge before the city used eminent domain to take it.
Next supportive votes must be obtained for the bill from California State Assembly policy committees and the full Assembly. After these steps the bill can be signed into law by Governor Newsom to allow Los Angeles County to return the land. It is hoped all this will take place soon, ideally before the new California state fiscal year begins in July 2021.
Some have said this would be the first time land would be returned to an African American family as a way to make amends for various discriminatory policies in California and possibly the nation. The restitution act of giving the land back to the Bruce family could provide opportunities for recouping generation wealth building that was lost.
It will certainly provide state-sanctioned acknowledgement of White supremacy and the racist anti-Black actions that occurred in 1920s by Manhattan Beach White propertied and political classes. It also offers some psychologically healing for the loss of opportunity for the family descendants and for African Americans of all classes in general.
These moves are a good thing, but we must think more deeply about the events of 100 years ago and their legacy. This restitution will not provide tangible benefits to the purged African Americans of all classes from Manhattan Beach that lost out on a vibrant socio-economic cultural space. For broader benefit, public programming and restitution efforts will have to occur that encourage African American community opportunities in Manhattan Beach and at California beaches.
Los Angeles County officials have been working on a plan to transfer/return the land to the Bruce descendants quickly once SB 796 is signed into law by Governor Newsom.
BB Upcoming Events:
Learn more about the status of SB 796 at the Justice for Bruce’s Beach Juneteenth Celebration, Saturday, June 19, 12 noon to 3 pm. The idea for the Bruce family land restitution to their descendants emerged during this moment in 2020. Learn more about the origins of the Juneteenth celebration here.
Also join ARJ and the California Historical Society for a virtual talk about the Black leaders of leisure resort and community development at Bruce’s Beach during the Jim Crow era and how their stories are shaping our lives today on Thursday, June 22, 5.30 pm. Get more information and RSVP here.
Cowan, Jill. Interview with former California Secretary of State Shirley Webber on Reparations Task Force she spearheaded the effort when she was an assemblywoman. New York Times | California Today, June 3, 2021.
Darity, Jr., William and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Evains, Tyler Shaun. “State Senate passes bill allowing return of Bruce’s Beach to family of original Black owner.” Daily Breezes, June 2, 2021.
Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “What is Owed.” New York Times, June 30, 2020.
Jefferson, Alison Rose. Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
Jefferson, Alison Rose. “The true damage in a racist land grab,” OpEd. Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2021.
King, Noel. “’From Here to Equality’ author Makes A Case, And A Plan, For Reparations,” Heard on Morning Edition. National Public Radio (NPR), June 17, 2020.
Luna, Taryn. “California’s slavery reparations task force is convening. Here’s what happens next.” Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2021.
Yancy, George. “Robin D.G. Kelley: The Tulsa Race Massacre Went Way Beyond “Black Wall Street.” Truthout.com, June 1, 2021.