LA County Votes to Initiate Return of Beach Property to Black Family

A Black-owned resort on the oceanfront property faced racist attacks in the 1920s and was eventually seized by the Southern California city of Manhattan Beach ostensibly to build a public park.

View from the top of Bruce’s Beach in Southern California. (By ChildofMidnight at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, Link)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to initiate the return of oceanfront property to the descendants of a Black couple who operated a popular resort that stood on the Southern California shore a century ago.

Beginning in 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce purchased parcels of coastal property and developed a sprawling, oceanside resort that provided respite and refuge for Black people who were systematically barred from many parts of the California coast.

The resort — which featured an elaborate dance hall, restaurant and bath house — quickly became the target of vandalism and racist attacks by white supremacists. In 1920, the Ku Klux Klan orchestrated an assault on the resort and burned down a Black family’s home.

White neighbors frequently harassed Black beachgoers and also placed unofficial “no trespassing” signs near the property to cut resort visitors from the water.

Manhattan Beach officials also lobbed pressure on the Bruces, voting to condemn the nearly 7,000 square foot property in 1924 and seizing it that year through eminent domain ostensibly to build a park.

The motion by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell said the city’s eminent domain process — and a later vote to prohibit resorts in that area — were “racially motivated” moves to disenfranchise the Bruces, who had moved west during the Great Migration, and their descendants.

“In an act of racism motivated by the desire to drive out a successful Black business, the city of Manhattan Beach seized Bruce’s Beach from Charles and Willa Bruce under the false pretense of building a park, not only forcing them to leave Manhattan Beach but also depriving their descendants of access to generational wealth,” the motion said.

The property, which was transferred from the state to the county in 1995, is now home to the LA County Lifeguard Administration Building, which could be relocated in the future pending successful transfer, according to the motion.

The five-member, all-female board voted unanimously to direct county staff to develop a timeline and exact steps for transferring the property to the Bruce’s descendants. 

A third-party trustee could eventually oversee the ownership claims process and the eventual transfer of property, according to the motion, which did not provide an expected completion date.

“While we cannot change the past, we can act now in the present to right this historic wrong by returning the land that was unjustly taken from the Bruce family so that the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce have the opportunity to participate in the American Dream that their great-grandparents sought out a century ago,” the motion said.

In 2006, Manhattan Beach officials voted to name a small park on the parcel “Bruce’s Beach” in recognition of the Black families who were forced off the land and led to shutter their businesses.

The board also voted 5-0 to endorse a state bill that will authorize the county to transfer the property. 

California Senate Bill 796 by state Senator Steve Bradford, D-Gardena — also the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus — would remove the state’s statutory restrictions on the use and ownership of the land.

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