Join us for Reflections on Race, a three-hour series of special coverage on Spectrum News 1, Tuesday, August 4 at 7 p.m. that addresses the important conversations around trauma, healing, activism, education, and allyship. Experts in psychology, parenting, and civil rights break down what can be done individually and collectively to keep moving toward a more equitable society.
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Navigating the ocean-front neighborhoods of Manhattan Beach can feel claustrophobic, especially in the city’s “Sand Section.” Houses are tightly packed there, with little breathing room between each other, much less the city’s streets and sidewalks.
But respite can be found at Bruce’s Beach park, on Highland Avenue, between 26th and 27th streets. Look to the west, and there are three clear blocks of grass overlooking the ocean. The only structure between Highland and the Pacific is a tree-shaded lifeguard station. It’s blue skies and bluer waters — save for a monument at the top of the hill, facing the road.
The plaque tells readers a short story: A founding father of Manhattan Beach, George Peck, “made it possible” for the Bruces, a Black family, to purchase and develop that land into a resort catering to people of color. It says that the city condemned the land owned by the Bruces and a handful of Black families to build a park. It tells readers that in 2006, the Manhattan Beach City Council renamed the park to honor the Bruce family, and hopes that the park can be a symbol of “friendship, goodwill and respect for all.”
“All are welcome,” the plaque concludes.
Ronald Clinton knows the park well. He’s spent almost his entire life in Manhattan Beach, he’s a product of the area’s renowned school system, and he and his family have passed Bruce’s Beach hundreds of times over the years, reading that plaque.
Today, Clinton is a rising senior at Stanford University. And last year, he began to investigate the legacy of racism in his hometown.
“I remember rereading the plaque, and I was so disappointed,” Clinton said. “That plaque does such a poor job at highlighting the injustice…(and) how whitewashed the history was, and how even that whitewashed version of history wasn’t talked about.”
Clinton understands racism. Five years ago, his parents’ home was set on fire as he and his siblings slept. Police never found a suspect for the crime.
The Clinton family is Black, members of a racial super-minority within Manhattan Beach. According to the 2010 Census, less than 1 percent of the city’s 35,135 residents are Black.
“When that happened, it made us feel like we weren’t welcome in the community,” Clinton said. The only reason his parents stayed, he said, was because neighbors immediately swept in to support the Clinton family.
When he thought back to the Bruce family, he couldn’t help but see parallels. Racists attempted to smoke the Bruces out, setting fire to a mattress under one of their buildings. The Bruces stood firm against anti-Black aggression, as well as legislation pressed upon them to make their lives more difficult. Other Black families followed, purchasing land for their homes and vacation spaces.
At least, until the trustees of the young city of Manhattan Beach decided that, if they couldn’t convince the Black community to leave, they’d force them out.
Only a few historians have delved into what happened at the park now known as Bruce’s Beach.
Recently, Los Angeles-based historian Alison Rose Jefferson devoted a chapter of her book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era to Bruce’s Beach and a few other Santa Monica Bay-area efforts to subvert Black land ownership. Manhattan Beach historian Jan Dennis included the history of the area in her books. And in 1956, Manhattan Beach native Robert Brigham investigated the matter for his master’s degree thesis at Fresno State College (known today as California State University, Fresno), interviewing more than a dozen people who lived through that time period; his thesis played a role in both Jefferson’s and Dennis’s works.
Willa Bruce, of Los Angeles, purchased her family’s first lot of land in Manhattan Beach in 1912 for $1,225 (a “high price compared to the cost of nearby lots” said the Los Angeles Times), from real estate dealer Henry Willard, in a subivision controlled by Peck. Today, that lot is a Los Angeles County Lifeguard station. But at the time, Manhattan Beach had about 600 people living in the largely-rural community.
It’s not clear if Willa and her husband Charles were the first Black landowners in Manhattan Beach. But the two, who moved to Los Angeles from New Mexico, were skilled in the art of hospitality: Charles Bruce was a dining car chef, and Willa was a talented homemaker.
Within a year of purchasing the land, the Bruce’s Lodge resort was built. In 1920, the Bruces purchased an adjacent lot for another structure, and by 1923, their operation was in full swing. Bruce’s Lodge included a snack stand, bathing suit rental and changing station for daytime visitors, a cafe, a dance hall, and rooms to accommodate overnight guests.
It wasn’t long before their resort became a premier place for Black beachgoers in Los Angeles. Soon other Black families purchased land for vacation homes near the Bruce property; a Black-owned hotel, built by the Slaughter family, was also established.
This didn’t sit well within Manhattan Beach.
Newspapers of the day reported that land owned by George Peck had installed “no trespassing signs,” patrolled by law enforcement, between the Bruce family’s property and the shoreline. Still, Jefferson wrote, “Bruce’s Beach was one of the only nearby places Los Angeles African American residents could enjoy the Pacific coastline offerings with minimal harassment.”
Willa Bruce, in a Los Angeles Times article published on June 27, 1912, stood her ground against complaints from neighboring Manhattan residents. “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it,” she told the newspaper.
That same article noted that white landowners “who have property surrounding the new resort deplore the state of affairs, but will try to find a remedy, if the negroes try to stay.”
Black visitors to Manhattan Beach found themselves harassed and insulted by locals, their cars vandalized, and their tires slashed. One Black-owned property was destroyed by fire, while firefighters extinguished the attempted arson at the Bruce resort. A Black attorney interviewed by Brigham “recalled numerous arrests of colored people on ‘trumped up charges.’” Other residents interviewed by Brigham recalled that the Ku Klux Klan was active at the time, harassing people and gathering strength across the Beach Cities of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo.
In 1924, Manhattan Beach began impressing legislation on the area. One ordinance barred the establishment of new “public bath houses east of the Pacific Electric right of way,” just off the sand. A subsequent ordinance said anyone seeking to open a “bathhouse, social club…or other place of public amusement” must submit a written application to the city’s trustees. These laws made it impossible for the Bruces to expand their property – and according to one person interviewed by Brigham, the laws were aimed directly at Black landowners.
Beginning in 1921, Manhattan Beach resident George Lindsey petitioned the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees to “take measures to discouraged colored people from establishing homes in Manhattan,” Brigham wrote, based on two interviews with Lindsey for his thesis. “Although sympathetic, the members of that body were reluctant to take action lest they go on the record as being bigots.”
In 1923, Lindsey circulated a petition requesting the condemnation of the blocks where the Bruces and four other Black families — Milton and Anna Johnson; ret. Maj. George and Ethel Prioleau, who purchased and split a lot with duplex housing with a friend, Elizabeth Patterson; and Mary Sanders — owned land. On Oct. 16, 1924, the city passed ordinances condemning the blocks with the goal of creating a public park.
The land was not possessed solely by Black landowners. In his thesis, Brigham identifies more than a dozen other landowners on the blocks between 26th and 27th streets.
But the only structures and improvements made on lots on those blocks were developed by Black landowners, as shown in a map of the area that Jan Dennis holds in her collection.
Court papers filed to fight the condemnation plan note the “illogical nature of creating a public park out of this section, as there was already a 144,000-square-foot land tract about a half-mile south, which had been given to the city for park usage,” Jefferson wrote.
By 1929, the matter was finished: all of the Black landowners took payments to settle the matter. Willa Bruce was paid $14,500 for her property over both lots; Mary Sanders, who did not challenge the city’s order, accepted a $4,129 settlement. None of the other Black landowners individually received more than $2,500 for their property.
Brigham wrote in his thesis that “without exception, surviving members of the Negro families involved agree that the referees” setting land values during the hearings were generous in the prices offered. Jefferson wrote that “whether (the land owners) were favorably, let alone adequately, compensated for their land has remained open to debate.”
Three of the Black parties who lost their land opted to repurchase in Manhattan Beach, away from the sand. The Bruces did not. They opted instead to continue living in Los Angeles. By 1955, Brigham believed there to be only one Black landowner left in Manhattan Beach.
As for the condemned land, it remained abandoned and unused until, at least, 1962. That’s when it was renamed “Bayview Terrace Park” – more than 30 years after the city condemned the land, ostensibly, for park use.
Secrets of the city
In the preface to his thesis, Brigham wrote that he had been by those empty lots “hundreds of times,” wondering why there was nothing there.
“My casual questions were met with a shrug of the shoulders, or a furrowed brow, or sometimes a sly smile,” he wrote.
The history of the park remained largely confined to whispers in the decades since those Black landowners were forced off of their land, according to Dennis.
“People were very reluctant to even talk about it. They didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said.
Mitch Ward is, to date, the only Black person to have been elected to the Manhattan Beach City Council, and subsequently the only Black person to serve as the city’s mayor. (Manhattan Beach does not have an elected mayor; instead, the title rotates among members of the City Council.) He learned about Bruce’s Beach “in off-hand ways” by researching the city’s history and speaking to the city’s “old timers.”
“I know the city, and heard some of the secrets that were not so open,” Ward said in an interview. “Bruce’s Beach happened to be one of those things.”
Ward was a driving force behind the 2006 naming of the park, from Parque Culiacan (named for Manhattan Beach’s sister city) to Bruce’s Beach – something, he said, he sought to do during his first term as mayor. He is keenly aware of his membership in one of Manhattan Beach’s smallest minority groups; even as a past mayor, he’s been subject to racism.
Ward told a story of stepping outside the Sepulveda Boulevard storefront he’s held for 18 years, and being accosted by an employee from a nearby shop. “He said he was going to tell my boss that I was out, loitering – in front of my office,” he recalled.
“The attitude that people believe that Black people don’t live here, that we don’t have offices here…it’s a terrible perception,” Ward said. “I think it’s something that the city, everyone in the city, has to work on.”
The push for change
Today, Ronald Clinton is part of a coalition to do just that. He was a founding member of a social media group driving the city of Manhattan Beach and the Manhattan Beach Unified School District to address systemic racism within his hometown. He wants people to address topics like Bruce’s Beach, and the Tulsa Race Massacre. In 1921, 35 blocks of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous “Black Wall Street” neighborhood were destroyed when a young Black man was accused of assaulting a young white woman.
“I don’t remember learning about that at all in my education…we need to change the way that society looks at Black people, and so we can see other Black people in a more positive light. That starts with education,” Clinton said.
Jennifer Cochran, a member of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education, was passingly familiar with Bruce’s Beach until recent protests – concurrent with the national Black Lives Matter movement – caused her to look deeper. She found that many people were like her: they knew of the park, but little of how it came to be.
“What’s coming up here is that nowhere is it in formal curriculum. History passes in all sorts of ways. Some if it is stories that have passed down – if you’re lucky to have had someone passionate about passing that story. But nowhere has it been formalized,” Cochran said.
To address that, MBUSD has put together a team of teachers and administrators to look at social justice standards and curriculum to include in the school board’s goals for the upcoming school year.
Cochran is aware that the wheels of government often turn slowly, but she believes that MBUSD is agile enough to implement changes as soon as this year.
“I feel this is one of those things that we will try to implement quickly and then add to,” Cochran said. “It’s not something that you’ll solve by changing a book. This is a long-term goal; we have to have more diversity in our staff, we need to make sure that we’re documenting this in policy, and that we’re working on it as school leaders and teachers.”
In mid-July, the city of Manhattan Beach held a public forum to address issues of implicit bias among community members. Soon after, at a July 14 meeting, the council moved to discuss the history of Bruce’s Beach to deal with “misinformation.” That discussion was set for the council’s Aug. 4 meeting but has been postponed. Allison Rose Jefferson was sought to lead that meeting but declined when she and the council members could not agree on which educational materials to include in the presentation. Jefferson told Spectrum News that she felt the City Council was not respecting her “as a subject matter expert (or) a professional.”
The discussion has not yet been rescheduled.
“First things first, start with the actual facts that happened,” Mayor Richard Montgomery said in an interview. “For right now, it’s unfair for anyone to talk about possible options when the history is unclear to so many people.”
In a previous stint on the city council during the early 2000s, Montgomery served alongside Mitch Ward. He was one of two votes against renaming Bruce’s Beach at the time.
“Thank God three people had a different opinion and Bruce’s Beach was renamed,” he said.
Montgomery said that the city would be open to replacing the existing monument plaque at Bruce’s Beach. That plaque, he maintained, was designed and paid for by Leadership Manhattan Beach, a private civic leadership organization – not the city itself.
“No one asks for the same thing,” Montgomery said. “I think the city needs to hear from people who have a clear, concise idea of what they’re looking for first and then come talk to us.”
An online petition by Manhattan Beach resident Kaitlyn McQuown and co-signed by Duane Shepard, a descendant of the Bruce family, outlines a set of demands to the city of Manhattan Beach: installation of a “historically accurate” plaque at Bruce’s Beach; a public statement from the city of Manhattan Beach addressing the park’s history and a commitment to combat racial intolerance; and restoration of the land rights – and restitution of 95 years of lost revenues – to the Bruce family. That petition has nearly 10,000 signatures.
“We hear our ancestors calling out to us to get justice for them,” Shepard said. “What we would like to do is take that land and build a cultural center, a history of Black people on the West Coast, and to have a foundation where we can give scholarships and business education grants.”
Shepard said that he is also concerned about the surrounding families who lost their land.
“We want to step up and say that this wrong has been done, we want it to be corrected, and we want justice for it,” Shepard said.
Ronald Clinton knows that the work is not nearly done, but he’s excited at how the conversation has evolved.
“It’s amazing to think about how long it takes to implement change, and I’m excited to be a part of it no matter what happens,” Clinton said. “Even if nothing happens with Bruce’s Beach, we still have shown the story to people all around the nation, which is just so important.”