LOS ANGELES — A Palos Verdes-area attorney has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the transfer of Bruce’s Beach, the former site of a Black-friendly resort, from Los Angeles County to the Bruce family descendants.

The latest complaint — which amends his original complaint and was filed subsequent to a motion for preliminary injunction — was introduced by Joseph Ryan, who is representing himself in the lawsuit. Ryan’s case raises two issues: First, he disputes the facts as accepted by the county regarding Manhattan Beach’s original eminent domain seizure of the Bruce family’s land; and second, he questions the constitutionality of the county’s plan to restore the land to the family.

When reached by Spectrum News 1, Ryan declined comment.

What You Need To Know

  • A lawsuit has been filed, seeking to prevent LA County from transferring the land now known as Bruce's Beach to Bruce family heirs

  • The Bruce family was compelled to sell its land via eminent domain in the 1920s, after a decade of running a successful, Black-friendly beach resort

  • In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that cleared the path for LA County to transfer the land, following demonstrations from local activists

  • The plaintiff, Joseph Ryan, has previously been the center of controversy among neighbors for flying a Confederate battle flag at his Palos Verdes-area home

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the first of two land plots that would eventually become “Bruce’s Lodge,” an ocean-front resort catering to Black beachgoers. The Bruce family’s business soon became central to an enclave of Black Angelenos and visitors who came to enjoy a holiday at the beach.

But the Black community would suffer aggressions and indignities — ranging from flattened tires to attempted arson to ordinances apparently targeted at their businesses — until Manhattan Beach’s Board of Trustees set out to seize two blocks of city land through eminent domain, ostensibly to build a park. (Decades later, one trustee would write in a local newspaper that he and his colleagues had acted to prevent the “Negro problem” from stopping the city’s progress.)

In the process, the city would acquire both of the Bruce family lots, as well as lots owned by four other Black families, and nine white landowners. Only the lots owned by Black families had been improved with construction. None of the other lots had structures built upon them, according to a tract map of the property included for the condemnation proceedings.

By 1929, the court’s final judgement was rendered. The displaced landowners were paid for their land, and though a few of those Black families resettled in Manhattan Beach, the Bruces retired from the hospitality industry and moved to Los Angeles. Charles died in 1931; Willa died in 1934.

A 1933 article in a local newspaper stated that the area now known as “Beach Front Park” had been graded and printed plans for further development that did not come to pass. In 1956, Manhattan Beach resident and Fresno State College graduate student Robert Brigham wrote his master’s level thesis on the history of the land, stating that — despite the seizure of the land — a park had not yet been built.

Over a series of land deals over the decades, control of the Bruce family’s former parcels changed hands from Manhattan Beach to the State of California to Los Angeles County; currently, a county lifeguard training center stands at the site of the former resort. Today, the rest of the blocks east of the training center are a parking lot and a park named for the Bruce family.

The land’s history was raised by activists in 2020, following the national racial awakening that took place after the murder of George Floyd. LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn and Gardena-area State Sen. Steven Bradford worked together to return the land to the Bruce family descendants.

Earlier this year, Bradford introduced Senate Bill 796, which allowed for the county to transfer the land to the Bruce family; in the meantime, Hahn secured the support of her fellow supervisors to transfer the land.

The bill passed the California Legislature in early September, and was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom by the end of that month. County staff stated that a number of steps were next to be completed, including fact-finding to determine the appropriate heir to the land; the earliest possible transfer date, then, was projected for summer 2022.

Ryan disputes three facts accepted by the county. He disagrees that the city’s act of eminent domain took land from “several” Black families; he argues that the land was used as a public park for over 100 years as of the time of his lawsuit, despite the timeline established by Brigham’s contemporaneous history; and he does not believe that the city “forced” the Bruces to “give up their successful business” and leave Manhattan Beach — rather, he argues, the Bruces “chose to retire.”

Ryan cites the then-recent opening of a hotel, opened by James Slaughter (a Black man), as proof that the Bruces or their heirs could have returned to the area. However, ordinances from the time (and still on the books today) effectively prevented the Bruces from establishing a similar amusement business without the approval of the city’s board of trustees — the same group that just compelled them off of their land.

Based on what he believes is “objectively indisputable,” Ryan argues that the city of Manhattan Beach did not discriminate against the Bruce family because of their race.

“The asserted basis the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors claims as justifying its giving away public wealth to the legal heris of C.A. and Willie (sic) Bruce for their personal use is without foundation in law and fact,” he argues.

“Therefore, the giveaway cannot, as a matter of law, be deemed, even ostensibly, as for a public purpose, and, thus, the give-away is beyond the constitutional power of the defendant.”

At odds with Ryan’s suggestion is language within SB 796 asserting the land was “wrongfully taken,” owing to the racist acts of the trustees.

In a September interview with Spectrum News 1, Bradford reiterated the intent of the bill.

“It’s not a gift, it’s returning that which was stolen. The city used the law of eminent domain to commit a crime, and steal property that was rightfully owned by Charles and Willa Bruce,” Bradford said. “We’re returning it, just as if your car was stolen and found and it’s returned to you; nobody’s gifting your car to you, they’re returning your car.”

Ryan, who was appointed to the State Bar in 1974, was described as a “retired lawyer and Civil War buff” in a 2018 article by the Daily Breeze newspaper, centering on his use of the Confederate battle flag. In the article, Ryan said that he flies the flag about four times a year as an acknowledgement of the war and a reminder of the country’s racial history.

“I don’t really give a damn about the politics of liberal idiots who want to look at that flag and say, 'Oh that’s racist,'" Ryan told the Daily Breeze. “The last person you can call a racist is me.”

A hearing on Ryan’s motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for January.