EDITOR'S NOTE: Spectrum News 1 multimedia journalist Timothy Parker spoke to activists and members of the Bruce family about the significance of the property's return. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The Bruce family is getting its ancestral home back.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796 into law Thursday, authorizing Los Angeles County to return to the Bruces a set of parcels that were once a Black-owned, Black-friendly beach resort in Manhattan Beach.
The original owners, Willa and Charles Bruce, were compelled to sell the land to the City of Manhattan Beach in the late 1920s, following the city’s racially-motivated use of eminent domain.
SB 796, written by state Sen. Steven Bradford, was approved by the California Legislature in early September and won the unanimous support of the LA County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Janice Hahn, who counts Manhattan Beach among the cities she represents, believes that the legislation could be a model for property restoration around the country.
"Now that LA County officially has the authority to transfer this property, my goal over the next several months will be to transfer this property in a way that not only works for the Bruce family, but is a model that other local governments can follow,” Hahn said in a statement. “Returning Bruce’s Beach can and should set a precedent for this nation and I know that all eyes will be on Los Angeles County as this work gets underway."
LA County acquired the land following a series of property deals, giving it control of the beachfront area. However, state law, to this point, has restricted the transfer of public land to private entities. Currently, an LA County lifeguard training center stands on the former Bruce property. Hahn has promised that on Sept. 31, she will introduce a motion preparing to accept an amended deed for the land from the state and will pursue the process to identify the legal heirs to Willa and Charles Bruce.
The Bruce family beach resort, known then as Bruce’s Lodge, was opened in 1911. As one of the few Black-friendly beaches on the coast at the time, it became the centerpiece of a burgeoning Black community in the fledgling South Bay of Los Angeles. But visitors and residents were harassed, businesses were targeted with legislation and properties were firebombed.
By 1924, a petition of residents led the city’s Board of Trustees (the precursor to the modern city council) to condemn two whole blocks of land, including the Bruce parcels and the developed properties of four other black families, and a handful of undeveloped properties controlled by white landowners. The land was ostensibly taken to be developed into a park, though decades later one trustee acknowledged that the land seizure “was the meanest thing I ever did.”
Each of the property owners — including the Bruces and their Black neighbors — were paid for their properties in accordance with the law. Each of the families eventually moved out of Manhattan Beach, and the young Black enclave was quashed. To this day, Black residents make up 0.5% of the city’s population.
Amid the racial reckoning of 2020, activists newly awakened to the park’s history began to agitate. Justice for Bruce’s Beach, founded by Manhattan Beach resident Kavon Ward, helped lead the charge.
"This is one of the victories. This is the land restoration victory, but we still have to focus on getting the family restitution. The city of Manhattan Beach still needs to be accountable for what they did,” Ward told Spectrum News.
The City of Manhattan Beach has condemned the city’s past racist act but stopped short of issuing a formal, full-throated apology. It is as yet unclear if the other families whose land was taken via eminent domain will be offered restitution by the city.