By Ray Richardson
LOS ANGELES – With an emotional 5-0 vote June 28 the county Board of Supervisors delivered a form of reparations to descendants of a family wronged about 100 years ago.
The supervisors formally approved a motion that returns the land of a once popular resort area for Black families to descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, the Black couple who had their Bruce’s Beach property in Manhattan Beach taken away from them nearly 100 years ago through discriminatory legal actions.
“It’s an understatement to account for the joy our family is feeling,” Anthony Bruce, one of the four living Bruce descendants, told The Wave from his home in Tampa, Fla. “Our culture and society has changed. This decision proves that everybody has basic human rights.”
After escrow and closing procedures are finalized in about a month, the four Bruce descendants will become “landlords” and Los Angeles County will be their tenant. According to terms of the transfer, the county will pay the descendants $413,000 per year in rent as long as the descendants maintain ownership. The land containing Bruce’s Beach is currently valued at $21 million.
Today, the beachfront property, located near Highland Avenue, is home to a lifeguard training facility operated by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“It’s been a leap of faith to get this done,” said Duane Shepherd, a cousin to Anthony Bruce and a family spokesperson. “We knew we were right all along. It’s a relief that we finally got justice for the family.”
Charles and Willa Bruce were forced to give up their resort in 1924. The supervisors’ historic action, led by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell, culminated nearly four years of legal efforts, including the passage of state legislation introduced by state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, to return the 7,000-square-foot property to the Bruce descendants.
Bradford’s bill, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last September, lifted state restrictions on the property transfer and gave Los Angeles County the authority to complete the process.
As Hahn read her comments detailing the tedious steps leading up to this week’s decision, her voice cracked several times and she wiped away tears.
“We’ll never be able to make up for the wrong that was committed, but this is a start,” Hahn said. “The Bruce family can start rebuilding the generational wealth they lost. We hope this isn’t the last time something like this is done. We hope other governments around the country will follow our footsteps.”
Anthony Bruce, 39, watched the Board of Supervisors meeting via an internet link. He is a great great-grandson of Charles Bruce.
The other three Bruce descendants are Anthony’s brother, Michael; Derrick Bruce, Anthony and Michael’s father and Marcus Bruce, Derrick’s brother. All three live outside of California.
Anthony Bruce indicated the descendants are hoping to visit Bruce’s Beach later this summer.
“There has been talk about us coming out there to help celebrate together,” Anthony Bruce said of conversations with Supervisor Mitchell. “We’ve been there several times, but to go back after what’s happened will be special.”
Bruce’s Beach is located in Mitchell’s Second District. Mitchell played a key role in the push to get the property transferred after Shepherd made the county aware of the situation in 2018. Shepherd learned more about the incident after doing research on Charles and Willa Bruce while attending a family reunion in Southern California.
During the supervisors’ meeting, Mitchell reiterated that the Board of Supervisors are “returning” the land to the Bruce descendants, not “giving it to them.”
Critics of the property transfer said returning the land to the Bruce descendants would be a “personal gift.” That’s the term used by Palos Verdes attorney Joseph Ryan, who tried to block the transfer with a lawsuit, claiming the move would be a “violation of the California Constitution.” Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied the lawsuit.
“The Bruce family lost their business and their wealth,” Mitchell said. “We are rectifying a historic injustice to this family. For this action to take place in this county is very appropriate.”
Formal transfer of the property does not involve the city of Manhattan Beach, and the city will have no role in management of the property, but the motion’s formal approval was supported by Manhattan Beach Mayor Steve Napolitano.
“The Manhattan Beach of today is a welcoming, inclusive community whose city council voted unanimously to acknowledge and condemn the wrongful taking of the Bruce property nearly 100 years ago by a much different city council at a much different time in American history,” Napolitano said in a statement. “We’re glad for the opportunity for all involved to learn from it, and now move forward from it.”
Charles and Willa Bruce purchased the property in 1912, turning the land into a profitable resort area for Black professionals and their families to swim, surf, eat and relax. The resort’s popularity led to harassment of black patrons by white residents in Manhattan Beach.
Manhattan Beach city officials, uncomfortable with Blacks having a beach resort, invoked the use of eminent domain, which gives governments the right to take private property and convert it to public use if the original owners are paid for the transfer.
The city condemned the property and forced the Bruce family to sell it. The Bruces asked for $70,000, but court documents show that the city only paid them only $14,500.
Evidence of racial motivation behind stripping Bruce’s Beach from the couple was revealed several years later when a member of the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees wrote a column in a local newspaper claiming the move had to be made to address the “Negro problem” in the area.
The trustee member wrote that he believed the success of Bruce’s Beach was “slowing” Manhattan Beach’s progress.
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at email@example.com.