LOS ANGELES - Calling it a long-overdue righting of a wrong committed a century ago, County Supervisor Janice Hahn said Friday the county will return a scenic parcel of Manhattan Beach land to the descendants of a Black couple who operated a beach resort that was derided by residents and ultimately condemned and seized by city.
"This is a story of an American Dream that turned into a nightmare," Hahn said.
But transferring the portion of what is known as Bruce's Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce requires state legislation to remove restrictions on the land, which now houses the county's lifeguard training center.
"I learned very quickly that I just can't give the property back," Hahn said during a news conference overlooking the parcel near the Strand and 26th Street. "It came with restrictions, where it limited our ability to sell or transfer this property. So I need state legislation to lift these restrictions and allow the county to transfer this property."
Lawmakers said that the first step towards returning Bruce’s Beach to the family will start by introducing state legislation (SB 796) to make it possible for Los Angeles County to transfer the land.
Sen. Steve Bradford, D-Gardena, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he will champion the legislation in Sacramento, saying, "I look forward to working with the county getting this legislation signed into law this year."
"Sadly, the Bruce story is not unique here in California or across this nation," Bradford said.
Duane "Yellow Feather" Shepard, the Bruce family spokesperson, expressed anger at the Manhattan Beach City Council, who earlier this week, issued an acknowledgment of what happened at Bruce's Beach but stopped short of issuing a full apology.
"We want restoration of our land," Shepard said. "Restitution for the loss of enterprise and punitive damages for the institutional racism in this city that railroaded our family out of here,"
The public seizure of the Bruce's Beach property has long stained the history of the seaside community, particularly in the past year amid a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice.
It was 1912 when Willa and Charles Bruce purchased land along what is now the Strand and roughly 26th Street for $1,225. They eventually added some other parcels and created a beach resort catering to Black residents, who had few options at the time for enjoying time along the California coast.
Bruce's Beach (Bruce’s Beach, circa 1912. Photo courtesy the Manhattan Beach Historical Society)
Complete with a bath house, dance hall and cafe, the resort attracted other Black families who purchased adjacent land and created what they hoped would be a ocean-view retreat.
But the resort quickly became a target of the area's white populace, leading to acts of vandalism, attacks on vehicles of Black visitors and even a 1920 attack by the Ku Klux Klan.
The Bruces were undeterred and continued operating their small enclave, but under increasing pressure, the city condemned their property and other surrounding parcels in 1929, seizing it through eminent domain under the pretense of planning to build a city park.
Charles and Willa Bruce. (Photo from City of Manhattan Beach staff report)
The resort was forced out of business, and the Bruces and other Black families lost their land.
The families sued, claiming they were the victims of a racially motivated removal campaign. The Bruces were eventually awarded some damages, as were other displaced families. But the Bruces were unable to reopen their resort anywhere else in town.
Despite the city claiming the land was needed for a city park, the property sat vacant for decades. It was not until 1960 that a park was built on a portion of the seized land, with city officials fearing the evicted families could take new legal action if the property wasn't used for the purpose for which it was seized.
The exact parcel of land the Bruces owned was transferred to the state, and then to the county in 1995. It currently houses the county's Lifeguard Training Center.
"I'm embarrassed to say that I knew very little about this history," Hahn said Friday, saying she was well aware of the scourge of racism in other parts of the country, but ``somehow I thought that didn't happen here. But in fact it did."
"And when I realized that the county of Los Angeles now had ownership of the Bruces' original property, I wanted to do what I could to start righting this wrong," she said. "I felt there was nothing else to do but to give the property back to the direct descendants Willa and Charles Bruce."
Fellow county Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the Bruce family was "robbed of their property," and insisted that giving the property to back to the family is not a "gift."
"The county isn't gifting anyone anything," she said. "The county is returning property that was inappropriately taken. We are returning to the Bruce family ... property that they rightfully owned."
The city park that now sits on a portion of the land seized by the city has borne a variety of names over the years. But it was not until 2006 that the city agreed to rename the park "Bruce's Beach" in honor of the evicted family. That honor, however, has been derided by critics as a hollow gesture toward the family.
After hours of public comment and debate Tuesday night, the Manhattan Beach City Council adopted a resolution acknowledging and condemning the city's actions of 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.
A descendant of the Bruce family, Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard, lashed out at the council during Friday's announcement, making it clear the family would be pursuing legal action to be fully reimbursed for the seizure of the land, along with restitution for lost earnings from what the resort would have earned over the past century, along with "punitive damages for the institutional racism in this city that railroaded our family out of here."
He praised Hahn for taking action, saying she "realized that injustice, a violation of the human rights of Americans, has occurred."
"The Bruce family is grateful for your efforts and pray that God guides you and rewards you for your efforts," Shepard said.
"We reserve our rights on this Earth to be men, to be women, to be human beings, to be given the rights of human beings, to be given the respect of human beings in this country, in this day, in this society and in this damn city," he said.
Hahn said the county is in discussions with the Bruce family to discuss the future of the land, and the lifeguard training center. She said one possibility is that once the land is returned to the family, the county could then lease it back to house the training center.