By Janice Kyser
MANHATTAN BEACH — Pursuing their version of the American dream, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a patch of scenic oceanfront property here in 1912, ultimately building a bustling seaside resort for Black tourists banned from most leisure facilities in segregation-era America.
Threatened by the Bruce’s success, local white residents tried harassment and violence to chase the family off — and when that failed, officials seized the property under eminent domain, leaving the couple to spend the rest of their lives fighting unsuccessfully to reclaim their property.
More than a century later, the California State Senate is one step closer to returning the property to heirs of the Bruces, thereby becoming a critical cog in the nation’s racial reckoning and an unprecedented victory for proponents of reparations for Black Americans, some experts say.
“What happened to the Bruce family is an ugly part of America that continues to this day,” said State Sen. Steven Bradford, who recently sponsored a Senate bill that would return the land to descendants of the Bruce family.
“This country’s racist practices have tortured and killed African Americans physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and it is hard to put a price on what we have endured,” he added. “The state has a debt and an obligation to recognize these injustices and make amends.”
Bradford, D-Gardena, says his bill would lift restrictions enacted when the state deeded the property to the county in 1995, enabling officials to deed the property back to the Bruce family. The bill advanced to the Senate floor May 18 and could be on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature as early as next month, Bradford said.
“I don’t anticipate any obstacles in getting this bill passed and signed into law, but I’ve been around long enough to know that nothing is a certainty,” Bradford said. “My hope is that this case will set a precedent for the nation to start repairing past wrongs. As the saying goes, as California goes, so goes the nation.”
Bradford’s prediction may prove prophetic. As the national conversation over reparations continues, cities across America are taking steps to make amends for slavery and systemic racism, including Asheville, North Carolina, Evanston, Illinois, and Providence, Rhode Island, among others.
In Asheville, the city passed a “community reparations” bill, empowering officials to seek ways to boost investments in Black neighborhoods. Several other cities now are exploring similar initiatives, including New York, Chicago, Athens, Georgia, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Durham, North Carolina.
And at the national level, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced House legislation that would create a commission to study reparations for descendants of slavery.
National reparations activist Baba Jahahara Amen-RA Alkebulan-Ma’at said efforts like those in Manhattan Beach and other cities help make it “prime time for reparations” in America.
“We are always at a pivotal time for African and African-American independence and reparations for the past half century of wrongs that we have endured,” said Alkebulan-Ma’at of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. “Right now is an especially good moment when minds are open and people are aware and action is on the agenda.”
Alkebulan-Ma’at commends the Bruce family for its fortitude and its willingness to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
“No one is going to give you anything just because you are right,” he said. “We want to see more families like the Bruces stand up against these crimes against humanity. Across this country, our land, our dignity and our livelihoods have been taken through these land grabs that have and continue to traumatize our communities.”
Bruce family historian and spokesperson Duane Shepard says his family will never stop fighting for justice.
“We are the generation they have prayed for,” said Shepard, who is a cousin of Willa and Charles Bruce. “I am sure they would be very proud of us for what we are doing. We are determined to win. They were fighters and we are fighters.”
Shepard added that retrieving the land is just the start of the family’s journey. He said they also want restitution for the loss of income since 1929, when the property was seized. He says the land his relatives bought for $1,225 in 1912 is now worth about $75 million.
“It is impossible to calculate the loss of generational wealth,” he said. “Willa and Charles dreamed of putting a hotel there. The land was taken from them. How do you put an amount on the lost opportunities? But what the city can do at a minimum is look at the appreciation of the property and pay us the difference.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously April 20 to direct the county’s CEO to devise a plan to return the property to the family and to support Bradford’s bill. Supervisor Janice Hahn, who helped spearhead the initiative, said she is committed to finding justice.
“I am deeply embarrassed by what happened right here in L.A. County,” Hahn said. “I grew up here and I didn’t hear about Bruce’s Beach until recently. I knew about the horrible things happening to Black people in Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, but I naively thought L.A. County was better than that.”
“I feel it is my obligation to do what I can to make up for this injustice,” she said.
Anthony Bruce, the great-great grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce, said his family is considering several possible options for the land, including leasing it back to the county so it can continue to operate its lifeguard training facility.
Whatever they decide, it will never change the traumatic nightmare his family has endured, Bruce said.
“We are excited and elated, but it is bittersweet because a tragedy that happened to my family 100 years ago makes us leery,” said Bruce, who now lives in Florida. “If the KKK was there then, where did they go; did they just disappear?
“When you look at the demographics of Manhattan Beach today, it doesn’t scream welcome to African Americans. We do not want to go through the same thing. We do not want to see history repeat itself.”