Bruce’s Beach will return to descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce — nearly a century later

Hosted by

Charles and Willa Bruce bought a beachfront plot of land for about $1,000 in 1912. They built a welcoming resort catering to Black people. But in 1924, Manhattan Beach condemned and seized the land. Now Gov. Newsom has signed a law that transfers ownership of the parcel to Willa and Charles Bruce’s four remaining direct descendants. Photo by Amy Ta.

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a parcel of land in Manhattan Beach. They operated a lodge, cafe, and dance hall on the property. It was a refuge for Black beachgoers to enjoy a weekend away. The area became known as Bruce’s Beach. 

But the couple were harassed and threatened by white neighbors and members of the Ku Klux Klan. By 1924, city officials condemned the property and forced the Bruces to sell and leave, robbing future members of the Bruce family of generational wealth from the land. 

Now the state is hoping to rectify that. Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 796, which would return the land to the direct descendants of Willa and Charles. 

“We are here now at a precipice of making history for African Americans in California, as well as around the United States,” says Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard. He is one of the hundreds of descendants of the Bruce family. 

Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) authored the bill and agrees. He’s hoping that the law sets an example for California and the nation about how the country has treated minorities in the past and what can be done about it. 

He says, “The Bruces’ situation is not unique. It's hundreds of thousands of families who've had land stolen from them based on eminent domain or urban renewal, whatever excuse they used, in order to take property. So we're showing, as Californians, that we can make an atonement and we can admit to the wrongs of our past.”

Senator Bradford sits on the Reparations Task Force in California, the first of its kind for the nation. He doesn’t see the return of Bruce’s Beach as reparation since he believes that the land was stolen. But he does see this as a pivotal step in righting past wrongs, which he hopes will be recreated elsewhere.

He says, “I think this speaks to the importance of ethnic studies and having an accurate story of history. And by having an accurate story of history, we can go back and retrace and see where we can atone and make amends.” 

LA County is now tasked with figuring out the tax issues and legal technicalities in order to finalize the transfer of ownership to the four direct descendants. Once that is finalized, the property, estimated to be worth $75 million, will be put into a trust for them. 

For Chief Shepard, this bill is only the start. The family, he says, has a three-part demand. “One was the restoration of the land. The other was restitution for the loss of revenue from our businesses that they forced us to close for 97 years. And punitive damages for the Manhattan Beach City Council and what they called the constable at that time, or the local police department, for working in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan and racists in that community to disenfranchise our people are their human rights.” 

Credits

Guests: