February 3, 2023

A black family told of their joy after a $75 million plot of beachfront land was returned to them by LA officials 98 years after it was seized from their ancestors. 

Video from Bruce’s Beach handover ceremony Wednesday showed Anthony Bruce, holding the deed aloft after it was handed over by LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan. 

His great-great grandparents Willa and Charles Bruce bought the Manhattan Beach plot in 1912, only to have it improperly seized by the city in 1924 after a racist pressure campaign. 

Anthony said in a speech: ‘It’s surreal, and it’s almost like being transported to the other side of the known universe.’

He added: ‘I want to remain level-headed about the entire thing. I want to make sure I don’t lose focus as to what Charles and Willa’s dream was. The dream was to just have an America where they could thrive and have their American business thrive.’

He concluded: ‘Without God, we would not be here today. And finally, thank you all. God bless.’   

The Bruces, bought the land in 1912 and built a resort for black families that became known as Bruce’s Beach. 

The resort thrived despite racist pressure from neighbors, local government and an attack from the Ku Klux Klan in 1920. 

But in 1924, the family was forced out when the City of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to seize the land under the pretense of turning it into a public park that was never built.   

Following the transfer, the family will lease the land back to the county at a cost of $413,000 per year. The piece of land is located at Highland Avenue and 26th Street. 

LA officials have the option to buy the land back for $20 million if the Bruces agree, although some critics say this is an undervaluation – and that the plot is actually worth $75 million.  

Anthony Bruce reacts while holding up the property deed of title to the Bruce family property

With his wife Sandra Bruce at his side, Anthony Bruce speaks to the crowd, thanking them for their support

Artist Shelley Bruce paints a painting of the Bruce family during a ceremony transferring the ownership of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce

The Los Angeles beachfront property ‘Bruce’s Beach’s is being returned to the descendants of resort owners after it was taken from them due to racist policies

Speaking to NBC Los Angeles, Derrick Bruce, the great-grandson of the original owners said: ‘ We are a family that was dispossessed. 

He continued: ‘Anyone who knows how hard it is to become dispossessed, that in itself is a grave puncture, a grave wounding. That’s what our family have gone through. A grave wounding.’

Derrick continued: ‘In a way, it does feel like justice. The hardship that our family went through, went through generations. It just echoed and reverberated without us knowing why.’

County Supervisor Janice Hahn told the audience: ‘Today, we are sending a message to every government in this nation confronted with this same challenge. This work is no longer unprecedented.’

On June 28, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to return Bruce’s Beach to its rightful owners.

The move marked one of the biggest cases of land reparations in US history.

The land is now owned by brothers Marcus and Derrick as well as Derrick’s sons, Anthony and Michael.  

In a statement regarding the vote in June, County Chair Holly Mitchell said that the Bruce family were ‘robbed of their property and generational wealth due to unjust laws and practices rooted in systemic racism.’ 

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The board heard that Anthony will maintain the property along with his father through an LLC that the family has formed. 

County Chair Holly Mitchell signs the transfer agreement on behalf of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors transferring ownership of the land to the Bruce family

Michael Bruce (pictured left) and his brother Anthony (pictured right) are the great-great grandchildren of Willa and Charles Bruce, who stand to finally inherit their family’s property after it was taken via eminent domain in 1924

Willa and Charles Bruce brought the property in 1912 during the early 20th century after moving from New Mexico with their son Harvey

According to documents, the land will be leased back to the county for two years from the Bruce family. The family will received $413,000 in rent. After the two year lease is up, the Bruce family is free to do whatever they please with the land.  

The new motion also has a clause allowing the country to buy back the land from the Bruce family for $20 million.

In February 2022, the Los Angeles Times quoted that the estimated price of the land parcels that belonged to the Bruce family were now worth an estimated $75 million. 

According to the motion, the $20 million price tag was ‘confirmed by appraisals to be equivalent to or less than the fair market value.’ 

Mitchell rejected the notion that the county was ‘giving’ the property to the family. She said: ‘We are returning property that was erroneously, and based on fear and hate, taken from them.’ 

The area of land in affluent Manhattan Beach on the outskirts of Los Angeles was a ‘refuge for Black families who came from across the state when racist laws wouldn’t allow for any other safe beach going options,’ Mitchell said in her statement. 

While County Supervisor Janice Hahn said: ‘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 Bruce a century ago, but this is a start.’ 

The county will lease the land from the Bruce family two years at a cost of $413,000 per year. The county also has the option to purchase the land for $20 million

Anthony Bruce, the great great grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce is all smiles as Governor Gavin Newsom signs SB 796, a bill allowing the return Manhattan Beach land to descendants of its original owners

Instead of continuing to run a thriving resort on prime beachfront land, they ended up as chefs serving other business owners for the remainder of their lives

Hahn said in her statement that Tuesday’s vote will give the Bruce family the chance ‘to start rebuilding the generational wealth that was denied to them.’ 

The plot currently serves as a grassy park and lifeguard training facility. 

Average property prices in Manhattan Beach run to $2.9 million, with the area sitting south of Santa Monica Bay. 

In September 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796 into law. This removed any restrictions in returning the law of the board of supervisors voted to do so. 

Also that month the city of Manhattan Beach issued a statement acknowledging and condemning its city’s actions from the early 20th century – but the statement stopped short of a formal apology.

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‘We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years,’ a document approved by the council says.

‘And the actions we will take together, to the best of our abilities, in deeds and in words, to reject prejudice and hate and promote respect and inclusion.’

In signing Senate Bill 796, Newsom offered a formal apology to the Bruce family. 

He said: ‘As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family.’

The governor added: ‘What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage: Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form.’

Anthony Bruce, a security supervisor who lives in Florida, said his family had been tormented by the seizure of their rightful property for generations.

Charles and Willa contested the eminent domain order and lost; the city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.

Instead of continuing to run a thriving resort on prime beachfront land, they ended up as chefs serving other business owners for the remainder of their lives.

Bruce’s Beach was a popular destination for black families in the early 20th century who were looking to go on a vacation without the stress of racial tensions 

The resort featured a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent

Bruce’s grandfather Bernard, born a few years after his family had been run out of town, was obsessed with what happened and lived his life ‘extremely angry at the world,’ he said.

Bruce’s father was unable to bear living in California and moved away from the state.

‘I was five years old when my father told me that my great-great-grandparents’ business on a beautiful stretch of Manhattan Beach had been taken away from them decades earlier,’ wrote Bruce, in an op ed in The Los Angeles Times, published on Thursday. 

‘It was a shocking and disturbing revelation for me as a young boy.’

 ‘When I was growing up, my father took us to Bruce’s beach,’ Anthony said in an April interview with BNC News.

‘It wasn’t called that back then, it was called another name and he said ‘all this land is yours. I want you to know that this is your inheritance and you’re going to have to fight for it. As it stands its not ours, but as it is its our legacy.”

The case was championed by Kavon Ward, an activist who learnt about the land’s history and founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach.

‘This country always likes to say: ‘You can make it. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” she said.

‘These people were doing that, and they were building community and spreading the wealth within the community and enhancing other black people, and it was all stripped away.’

Anthony Bruce said in the op ed: ‘I’ll never know if my family’s business would have grown to rival that of Hilton or Marriott, both of which were founded around the same time as Bruce’s Beach and grew from equally humble beginnings.

‘I have plans to one day soon return to my family’s land. When I go back to that stretch of Manhattan Beach, I won’t think only of the injustice done to my ancestors. I’ll also think of the progress our country has made.’   

The property along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first West Coast resort for black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches.

It included a lodge, cafe, dance hall and dressing tents.

The land lay unused for years, however, and was transferred to the state in 1948.

In 1995, it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. It came with restrictions limiting the ability to sell or transfer the property, which could only be lifted through a new state law.

The county’s lifeguard training headquarters building sits there now, along a scenic beach walkway called The Strand that is lined with luxury homes overlooking the beach.

In Manhattan Beach, an upscale Los Angeles seaside suburb, the population of 35,000 is more than 84 per cent white and 0.8 per cent black, the city website says.

In 2021, the city council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to displace the Bruces and several other Black families.

Should the Bruce family decide to sell the property, Senate bill 796’s wording would exempt them from a documentary transfer tax, and would shield profits made from the land’s scale from taxation.

‘Plans for the property… [are] personal and between us, the attorneys, and the County of Los Angeles,’ said Duane Shepard, a cousin of the direct descendants of the property and a long-standing spokesman for the reacquisition of the beach.

Key dates in battle for Bruce’s Beach 

1912 – Willa and Charles Bruce, who moved to California from New Mexico, buy a beachfront plot of land in Manhattan Beach. She had purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets. They open up a resort.

1924 – Manhattan Beach city council orders the Bruces sell, via eminent domain. They say they need to build a park. The Bruces challenge it in court, but lose. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.

1950s – The area had sat empty for decades, but the city council began to realize that questions might be asked unless the park, for which the land was supposedly taken, was not built. They create City Park, later renamed Beachfront, then Bayview Terrace Park. In 1974, it was named after a sister city in Mexico, Parque Culiacan.

2006 – Amid a growing interest in the history of the area, the city council voted 3-2 to rename the beach after the Bruce family — largely because of an appeal by Councilman Mitch Ward, the city’s first black elected official.

2017 – Kavon Ward moves to the area and hears the story of Bruce’s Beach. She begins campaigning to hand it back to the original owners. 

2018 – A Bruce family reunion is held at the beach, with around 150 people attending.

2021 – California’s governor Gavin Newsom signs into law SB 796, a bill to return the Manhattan Beach land to descendants of its original owners.

June 28, 2022 – Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors votes unanimously in favor of formally returning the land to the Bruce family