County, state seek ways to restore Black-owned beach to family members
MANHATTAN BEACH — The county Board of Supervisors is set to meet April 20 on legislation that would return prime oceanfront property, seized by the city of Manhattan Beach more than 90 years ago, to the descendants of its former owners, Willa and Charles Bruce.
The popular beachfront property known as Bruce’s Beach would be returned to the heirs of the Bruce family through Senate Bill 796, authored by state Sen. Steve Bradford and introduced in the state Legislature in February.
Willa and Charles Bruce purchased the beachfront property in 1912 for $1,225 and used it to build a resort for Black residents. At the time, it was one of the few Southern California beaches that allowed Blacks.
In 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council, using the power of eminent domain, began the process of seizing the property, stating the land was needed for a park. The city took control of the property in 1929, but the land remained vacant for decades.
Eventually, the property was turned into a park and transferred to the state then, in 1995, to Los Angeles County, which now uses the property as the L.A. County Lifeguard Training Center. But when the state transferred the property to the county, it included provisions that would prevent commercial development on the site.
In 2006, the city council renamed the park Bruce’s Beach, to honor the memory of the Bruce family.
Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a descendant and representative of the Bruce family, called Bradford’s legislation “monumental.”
“We’ve been fighting for 96 years to get our land back, even more intensely this past year, and it’s finally starting, said Shepard, who attended a news conference April 9 announcing the legislation. “Somebody finally heard us. Somebody finally found compassion in their heart to do something about what happened to our family.”
County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she recognized the opportunity the county has to begin to right the wrongs of the past and bring some justice to Charles and Willa Bruce’s descendants. She has met with the family and has stated her intention to work to return the land to them.
But there were legalities to work through, which required the state legislation
According to Hahn’s office, county legal advisers told her there were three options available. One would simply be to return the land to the Bruce family. Another would be to transfer ownership of the land back to the Bruces and then establish a ground lease in the county pays rent to the family and keeps the lifeguard headquarters.
The third option would be to determine the value of the property — estimates range from $40 million to $70 million — and pay the Bruces.
The solution the county is moving towards is transferring the land to the Bruces in a way that does not immediately saddle the family with an enormous property tax bill.
“I’ve definitely listened to Anthony Bruce on what he thought would benefit the family and not be a burden on the family,” Hahn said. “So I think we’re really going to land on transferring the property and then entering into a lease with the Bruce family. The county will pay to continue to operate the lifeguard administration building for however long, but it’s their property after that. They can do what they want.”
The Manhattan Beach City Council is working to right the wrong its predecessors committed in 1929.
The council has adopted a resolution acknowledging and condemning the city’s actions of nearly a century ago involving Bruce’s Beach, but the resolution did not include an apology to the family. The council did agree to install new historical markers at the site.
The City Council met April 6 to weigh in on four versions of recommendations made by a task force and multiple versions by three council members: Steve Napolitano, Hildy Stern and Joe Franklin.
Napolitano and Stern’s version incorporated the word “apology” while Franklin’s version did not. Franklin’s resolution was adopted by the council, 4-1, but stopped short of including a formal apology.
“The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of 100 years ago,” Franklin said. “The community and population of the city of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion.”
Some supporters of the Bruce family don’t think the city is going far enough. They believe the city should not only return the land to the descendants of the Bruces, but also compensate them fully for their loss of wealth.
“I hope they get the land back and all the money they’ve lost from 1929 until now,” said Candi Arnold. “The property is worth way more now but hopefully the family will keep it and build on it like a timeshare or something.”
County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who attended last week’s press conference, said
“Imagine the kind of fear and hatred that would compel a group of people to think it appropriate to invoke fear, and hatred and violence and use the laws available to them, at that point in time, to steal that land from a group of people who purchased it with their own earnings.
“We never want to use the law against a group of people again,” she added.
Bradford said his bill would seek to remove the provisions implemented by the state preventing the Bruces from developing the property.
“We’re going to remove all of the (restrictions) that the state put in place saying what you could use the land for: that you couldn’t sell it, that you couldn’t use it for commercial, that it would have to be for public access,” he said. “So we will be removing all of that, so if the Bruce family decides that they want to commercially develop it, they can do that.”
The bill has an urgency clause which allows it to become law as soon as the governor signs it.