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After a century, LA County officially returns $20 million beachfront property to Black family

The city of Manhattan Beach seized Charles and Willa Bruce's beachfront resort via eminent domain in 1924 — not the first or last act of racial harassment the family endured.

(CN) — The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to return Bruce's Beach, a $20 million beachfront property, to the descendants of a Black family from whom it was taken nearly 100 years ago.

Shortly after the vote, the Board of Supervisors signed documents officially turning the property back over to the Bruce family. It was one of the first overt acts of racial reparations in Southern California.

"We can’t change the past, and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles a century ago," said a tearful Supervisor Janice Hahn. "But this is a start."

George Fatheree, an attorney representing the Bruce family, told the board during the public comment period that "returning the Bruce's Beach property to the descendants of the Bruce family is not only the right thing to do for my clients — finally allowing the family to have a sense of closure — it's the right thing to do for all of us. By acknowledging our government's past failures, we advance our collective faith in democracy."

He added: "To our knowledge, this is the first time a government has returned property to a Black family after acknowledging it had been improperly taken."

The property sits in the city of Manhattan Beach between Ocean Drive and The Strand, a pedestrian and cycling street that runs along the beach. Under the plan, the county will lease some of the land from the Bruces for two years, paying them $413,000 per year. At that time, the county will have the right to buy the land back for $20 million, which is what it has been assessed at.

Charles and Willa Bruce bought the beachfront property for $1,225 in 1912. They turned the two lots into a sort of seaside resort, including a dance hall, a cafe and a lodge for Black beachgoers, who were banned from most of the other beaches in the area. A handful of other Black families bought adjacent properties and built their own houses.

Both the Bruces and their Black neighbors were forced to endure harassment from white neighbors, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Then, in 1924, the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees voted to condemn Bruce's Beach and the surrounding land and seized the properties by eminent domain, supposedly to build a public park. After the resort was demolished, the land sat vacant for decades while the Bruce family was forced to move out of Manhattan Beach.

The empty land was transferred to the state in 1948, then to the county in 1995. There is currently a lifeguard training center on the site as well as a small parking lot, a public bathroom and a bit of green space. City officials finally built a park on the land across the street from the Bruce's former resort. They named it Bruce's Beach.

It took years to return the land back to the Bruce family. A state law, Senate Bill 796, authorized the county to transfer the land. And the plan also had to overcome a lawsuit filed by Palos Verdes-based attorney Joseph Ryan, who claimed "the giveaway cannot, as a matter of law, be deemed, even ostensibly, as for a public purpose, and thus, the giveaway is beyond the constitutional power of the defendant.”

LA Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff disagreed this past April. “Righting a government wrong perpetrated in breach of our core and fundamental constitutional principles works to strengthen governmental integrity, represents accountability in government and works to eliminate structural racism and bias," Beckloff wrote in his opinion. "The government’s act of rectifying a prior egregious wrong based on racism fosters trust and respect in government.” 

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl underscored the difficulties encountered to return the parcel to the Bruces.

"To undo racism is not a simple thing," Kuehl said before the vote. "It took a state law. It took so many people — so many lawyers — trying to figure out, how can we do this without being sued, besides by this one idiot."

The five supervisors unanimously approved the land transfer. One group had objected, not to the land transfer per se but to the language of the motion. In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, Angela Mooney D'Arcy, executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples wrote, "The Indigenous Peoples are further erased by being left out of the conversation around the return of Bruce's Beach. Why do these efforts of healing not reach Native people?"

Holly Mitchell, who currently chairs the Board of Supervisors, was quick to correct that oversight, saying in her comments before the vote, "The county acknowledges that we're are all on homelands of the Native American people."

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