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MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Ethel Prioleau had lived many lifetimes by the time of her death in 1944, in her family home on 35th Place in Los Angeles — a stone’s throw from the University of Southern California’s campus.

When she died, she was the widowed matriarch of a family of four. She was a businesswoman, a licensed real estate agent, a founder of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles and a social activist.

What You Need To Know

  • The descendants of the Prioleau family are seeking justice for their grandparents, who were displaced from their Manhattan Beach property by eminent domain in the 1920s

  • Maj. George and Ethel Prioleau were among the families swept up in a racially motivated eminent domain action that sought to break up a burgeoning Black community

  • Descendants of the Bruce family — which owned a Black-friendly beach resort in the 1910s and '20s — have been promised their land will be returned by Los Angeles County

  • However, the Prioleau family's land is still owned by Manhattan Beach, which has turned the area into a public park

In 1929, Prioleau was the plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging rules restricting Black residents from using public pools within Los Angeles; she ultimately won that case, forcing the city to integrate its pools.

But her great losses took place only a few years earlier. In 1927, her husband, Maj. George Prioleau, died at age 71. Around that same time, she and a handful of her neighbors — all Black families — were forced off of land they had purchased in Manhattan Beach, swept up in a plot to quash a burgeoning Black community.

The Prioleau family’s home stood just off the corner of 27th Street and Bay View Drive, where Bruce’s Beach park now stands.

After nearly a year of constant activism, the descendants of the Bruce family will have their family’s land returned to them by the County of Los Angeles, which now owns their former property.

But the descendants of the Prioleau family are trying to determine if it’s even possible for them to receive recompense for the racially motivated seizure of their family’s land.

“What I have a problem with is the City of Manhattan Beach, which feels that the eminent domain their city created had no effect on us, my relatives, as property owners,” said Anna Gonzales, granddaughter to George and Ethel and present matriarch of the family. “It’s definitely an injustice, what has been done.”

In the 1910s, Charles and Willa Bruce founded one of the few Black-friendly beach resorts in Los Angeles, successfully drawing a handful of other Black Angelenos to build homes and businesses in the then-rural community of Manhattan Beach.

Within a decade, Manhattan Beach’s Board of Trustees sought to use eminent domain on four blocks of land to oust five Black landowners who had improved upon their properties: the Bruce family, the Prioleaus and their family friend Elizabeth Patterson; and the Sanders, Johnson, and McCaskill families.

A handful of white landowners were also forced to sell their properties, though their lots were empty.

Though Ethel Prioleau was able to physically move the family’s home from its original lot to another one nearby in Manhattan Beach, she soon left town entirely after learning of a restrictive covenant on the plot that may have forced her into another eviction proceeding, according to one historical account.

The city’s stated reason for the action was to build a park on those blocks. However, no park would be built until the late 1950s. In the 1940s, former Manhattan Beach trustee Frank Doherty admitted the board voted to condemn the land to build a park and solve the “negro problem” the city was facing.

For much of the last year, Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with its past, driven in large part by local activists. However, the results have been mixed. In March, the Council authorized one city committee to redesign an existing memorial plaque, and another to look into construction of a public art project.

But in April, rather than offering an apology for the city’s past actions, the modern-day city council approved a “statement of acknowledgement and condemnation,” with language that one councilmember said minimized the city’s past racist acts.

“Manhattan Beach decided that they’re going to put up an art exhibit with our grandparents’ names, and a new plaque, and their resolution that does not even give an apology,” Gonzales said. “All of those things are fluff, and they aren’t dealing with the main problem.”

Which, of course, is land ownership. The Bruce family was able to successfully lobby for a plan to have their land returned by Los Angeles County, which owns their former lots after a series of land swaps. But Manhattan Beach still owns the Prioleau family’s former land as part of the Bruce’s Beach park — and that park is one of a rare handful of open spaces in a hyper-dense section of the city.

The Prioleau descendants have reached out to both LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn and Manhattan Beach Mayor Suzanne Hadley to spread word of their family’s history, and received gracious replies in return, Gonzales said.

But they’re hoping for more, said fellow Prioleau descendant David Patton.

The family, Patton said, hasn’t reached a consensus on the end they’re seeking. But personally, he wants what the Bruces are getting: he wants his family’s land back.

“I think people need to understand — what if it were them? What if it were you and I who found ourselves being threatened by Ku Klux Klan-type individuals, burning crosses, slashing tires, all of the terroristic-type threats that were taking place in the 1920s against Black people going to the beach?” Patton asked. 

In a prepared statement provided to Spectrum News, Hadley said that she believes that compensation provided to one affected family must be provided to all — but emphasized LA County’s role in paying restitution.

“Our city attorney has said California cities cannot give public land or taxpayer money to private individuals. That would be an illegal gift of public funds. But the County operates under a different set of rules,” Hadley wrote.

“If they wish to give back the land to the Bruce family and others, the County can do so. I believe most MB residents feel that if one family from a century ago is compensated, all the families who lost their land due to eminent domain should be compensated as well. To date, the County has only mentioned returning land under the lifeguard station to the Bruce family.“

Kavon Ward, who leads activist organization Justice for Bruce’s Beach, is skeptical of how helpful Manhattan Beach might ultimately be toward the Prioleaus, and other affected families.

“The saving grace for the Bruces is that the land was owned by the county. The City of Manhattan Beach is not doing anything for the Bruces. I think they know that, and perhaps that’s where they’re stuck,” Ward said.

Patton knows that the law may not be on their side, but he’s hoping that Manhattan Beach will do more than simply approve new monuments. But, the family is keeping their options open, he added. The descendants of the Prioleaus are seeking legal counsel, to see if there’s any chance that they can make right of racist wrongs.

“For the family, I think our only chance of winning any victory at all is going to be out of the kindness of someone’s heart,” Patton said.