Sale comes after 2021 LA County Board of Supervisors vote to return of beach back to family’s closest living descendants
By Dolores Quintana
The descendants and heirs of Willa and Charles Bruce, the Black landowners in Manhattan Beach whose land stolen was by the city through fraudulent use of the eminent domain and used for city purposes have decided to sell the property back to Los Angeles County.
A grassroots campaign, Where Is My Land, sparked the legislative effort to give the land back to the Bruce’s descendants and another group, Justice For Bruce’s Beach was also formed to facilitate the effort to reclaim the land. Where Is My Land’s website showed the difference between the price that Willa and Charles Bruce paid for the property in 1912, $1,225, and the land’s current estimated worth, $70 million. It is part of a movement that seeks to redress the racist wrongs of the United States past and give the families who lost their wealth and property reparations and return stolen land.
The Bruce’s Beach webpage, on the Los Angeles County website, tells the story of the family and their stolen land. “In 1912 and 1920, Willa Bruce purchased two lots of land along the Strand in Manhattan Beach. Like many other Americans of African descent, the Bruce family had moved West as part of the Great Migration, seeking opportunities to participate in the promise of the California and American Dream. Shortly after purchasing the land, Charles and Willa Bruce turned the location into a seaside resort called Bruce’s Lodge that welcomed Black beachgoers from all over Los Angeles and beyond. It became colloquially known as “Bruce’s Beach.”
As the resort gained popularity and attracted Black beachgoers, many white residents of the surrounding predominantly white community reacted with hostility and racism.
At the same time, other Black families purchased land plots nearby Bruce’s Beach. Some built vacation homes, establishing the beginning of a modest and diverse community in Manhattan Beach.”
The site goes on to recount the story of how the land was stolen and racist laws were put in place to keep the Bruces or other black families from purchasing more land, “In 1924, prompted by a petition from local white real estate agents and other citizens, the Manhattan Beach City Council voted to condemn the Bruce’s resort site and the surrounding land through eminent domain to build a park. It is well documented that the real reason behind the eminent domain process was racially motivated with the intention of bringing an end to the successful Black business and to thwart other African Americans from settling in or developing businesses in Manhattan Beach.
City ordinances were also passed prohibiting dressing or undressing in vehicles on the street, public places or in tents, and parking restrictions were implemented to harass and prohibit African American visitation to the Bruce’s Beach shoreline area.
At the time that the Council voted to condemn the land, it also put new laws on the books that prohibited resort-type businesses in that area, effectively prohibiting the Bruce and other Black families from purchasing any additional beachfront property for a resort. In 1929, the court validated the City of Manhattan Beach’s claim to their property through eminent domain and finalized the financial settlement for the land.”
The City of Manhattan Beach immediately demolished the resort and the Bruce family moved out of town but, despite all their claims that the dispossession was necessary to build a public park, no park was built on the property until thirty years later.
In April of 2021, Los Angeles County Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Janice Hahn announced that they intended to return the property to the Bruce family’s closest living descendants and the LA County Supervisors Board approved the motion. On July 20, 2022, the L.A County Board of Supervisors officially returned Bruce’s Beach to the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce.
The California Legislature passed SB 796 which allowed the LA County Supervisors to transfer the land back to Bruce’s heirs which was a bill introduced by State Senator Steven Bradford. SB 796 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom at Bruce’s Beach in September of 2021 and he said, “As we move to remedy this nearly century-old injustice, California takes another step furthering our commitment to making the California Dream a reality for communities that were shamefully shut out by a history of racist exclusion,” said Governor Newsom. “We know our work is just beginning to make amends for our past, and California will not shy from confronting the structural racism and bias that people of color face to this day. I thank the Bruce family, Senator Bradford, the Los Angeles County Supervisors and all those who fought to keep the legacy of this place alive and deliver this long overdue justice.” and apologized to the Bruce family.
The story of Bruce’s Beach bears some similarity to the case in which the City of Santa Monica has used land deeded by Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, a wealthy Latina socialite, philanthropist and landowner as a public parking lot and playground. Bandini de Stearns Baker meant the land to be used as a resort for American veterans to be able to heal and rest and it would seem that her wishes for the deeded land have been disregarded by the city. Santa Monica City Councilmembers Christine Parra, Oscar de la Torre and Phil Brock initiated a motion to have a legal counsel explore if the deed was fully and legally executed and therefore enforceable.
During the Santa Monica City Council meeting when the motion was being discussed, veteran Rob Reynolds said, “She donated land in West Los Angeles and she donated land in Santa Monica to be a home for veterans and a place to help them heal when they come back from combat. It’s really sad that [her purpose] has gone away over the years.”