Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to return land to the descendants of a Black couple, Willa and Charles Bruce, that was taken from them in the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif., nearly a century ago. Newsom traveled to the area where the Bruces’ resort was once located to sign the new law in front of Bruce family members, the media and others who raised awareness of how Black Californians were pushed off of valuable beachfront property.
“I’m proud, as a son of this state, proud as the governor of this state, of the most diverse state and the world’s most diverse democracy, to be here, Anthony, with you,” Newsom said, referring to Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles and the heir to the property, at the bill signing.
Newsom added that the event was “for all of those families torn asunder because of racism all across this country and around the globe.”
Earlier this month, the California Legislature unanimously approved a measure allowing Los Angeles County to return the property to the descendants of Willa and Charles. The two built and operated a thriving resort that catered to Black patrons. At the time, it was one of two places in the Los Angeles area where Black people could safely visit the beach, according to the L.A. Times, as other public beaches were deemed for “whites only.”
But their joy came with hardship, as some white residents of Manhattan Beach — including members of the Ku Klux Klan — resented the resort and harassed Black visitors to deter them from coming.
In 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council used eminent domain to strip the Bruce family of their land and create a park.
The property was eventually transferred to the state of California. The state later handed it to the county, with the stipulation that it couldn’t be given away or sold.
This sort of expropriation of Black property was common throughout the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it contributed to the racial wealth gap that exists today.
“You got evidence of an entrepreneurial energy that was alive and well in this family, a persistence, a grit, a determination to make things happen,” Newsom said. “We’re here today to try to make up for [their loss].”
Legislation sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Steve Bradford and signed by Newsom on Thursday removes those restrictions, allowing L.A. County to return the land. During the bill signing, Bradford — who is Black and represents a southern L.A. district that borders Manhattan Beach — talked about growing up in Southern California and hearing stories about the Bruce family as he traveled through Manhattan Beach.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Bradford said that people often ask him, "What do you think generational wealth would have looked like for the Bruces?”
He said he responds by pointing to white families who have built fortunes. “I said let’s look at the Gettys, let’s look at the Rockefellers, let’s look at the Forbes,” Bradford said. “That's what generational wealth could have looked like for the Bruce family. But they were denied that because of the racist behavior of this city.”
Bradford criticized the current Manhattan Beach City Council for not apologizing to the Bruces.
In response, Newsom said: “Let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do, and I want to apologize to the Bruce family for what was done to them a century ago.”
Janice Hahn, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, grew up in the Manhattan Beach area and has been championing the cause on the local level for the county.
“The county, indeed, owned the very parcels which were once Bruce's resort. I knew there was one thing to do, and that was to give the property back,” Hahn said. “The law was used to steal this property a hundred years ago, and the law today will give it back.”
According to family members and historical records, Willa and Charles Bruce fought to keep their land. After the city seized their property, they sued and were awarded damages of $14,500. Adjusted for inflation, that wouldn’t amount to even a quarter of a million dollars today, according to the New York Times.
Newsom, Bradford and Hahn all credited activist Kavon Ward for leading the cause through the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement. Ward has now started a national campaign to help Black families reclaim property, called Where Is My Land. She says multiple people have already contacted her for assistance with potential cases.
The first official acknowledgment of the Bruces’ story was in 2006, when the City Council voted to rename a park Bruce’s Beach, near where the resort once stood. It happened under the leadership of then-Mayor Mitch Ward, Manhattan Beach’s first Black elected official. He was also in attendance at the bill signing and was thanked for his efforts.
The Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters, currently located at Bruce’s Beach, is thought to be worth as much as $75 million, according to CNN. The county is planning to lease the land from Anthony Bruce once they come up with a deal to hand it over.
Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, a distant relative of Willa and Charles Bruce and a family spokesman, told Yahoo News in July that this is not a story of reparations, but rather a story of returning land that was stolen.
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