County officials approve transfer of Bruce’s Beach property

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an unprecedented plan to return Bruce’s Beach to a black family who had been evicted from Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago — paving the way for further government efforts to right historical injustices that racially were motivated.

In a heartfelt moment during Tuesday’s board meeting, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn reflected on all the work and people it took to get the legal, legislative, and (very complicated) real estate details to right a wrong that has been done had triggered a movement and conquered the country.

“Today we’re finally here,” said Hahn, who initiated the complex process more than a year ago. “We cannot change the past and we will never be able to right the wrongs done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago. But this is a start and it is the right thing to do.”

The property is now held in escrow before being formally transferred to the Bruce family. After the transfer, the county agreed to lease the Bruces’ property for $413,000 per year and maintain its lifeguard facility there.

The lease also includes a right for the district to purchase the land at a future date for US$20 million plus all associated transaction costs.

In a public address to the board George Fatheree, a real estate transaction attorney who represents the Bruce family on a volunteer basis, thanked the many district officers and staff who “have worked tirelessly to get to this point today … who have approached this work with thoughtfulness, diligence, diligence, creativity, and above all, the commitment to do the right thing.”

“To our knowledge, this is the first time the government has returned property to a black family after acknowledging it was improperly taken,” he said. “We hope it won’t be the last time.”

The return of Bruce’s Beach has provided a helpful path forward for other cities and states trying to atone for past injustices. Many point to the country’s history of forcibly dispossessing indigenous peoples and evicting entire communities of color from prime real estate.

Tuesday’s decisive action shows what is possible when the political will is there — and when public insistence on accountability, said Effie Turnbull Sanders, who has campaigned for more than 20 years to advance the rights of underserved communities and currently works as a Environmental Justice Commissioner for the California Coastal Commission.

“We see now, with Bruce’s Beach as an example, that if we want as a society, we can find a legal way to bring about justice,” she said. “We can find a way to ensure that we do not perpetuate the structural inequalities that have existed in this country for centuries.”

The history of Bruce’s Beach begins with the Tongva people who cultivated this stretch of coast for millennia before white developers claimed their claim in the early 20th century and built what is now known as Manhattan Beach.

By 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce had made their way to California. Willa bought two beachfront properties and operated a popular lodge, cafe, and dance hall that gave black beachgoers a rare welcome. A few more black families, drawn to this new neighborhood that became known as Bruce’s Beach, bought and built their own seaside cottages.

But the Bruces and their guests faced increasing threats from white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan and local real estate agents were allegedly plotting ways to harass her.

When racism failed to drive this Black Beach community out of town, in 1924 city officials condemned the neighborhood and confiscated more than two dozen properties through Eminent Domain. They said there was an urgent need for a public park.

But for decades the plots stood empty. The two oceanfront properties owned by the Bruces were transferred to the state in 1948 and to the county in 1995. As for the other lots, city officials ended up turning them into a pretty park overlooking the ocean.

Realizing that the county now owned the two properties on which the Bruce resort once stood, Hahn jumped into action. She joined with LA County Chief Holly Mitchell and State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who brought together the state legislature and the governor to authorize the reconversion of public property to private property.

A district team led by Thomas Faughnan and D’Artagnan Scorza, in conjunction with Fatheree, performed an intricate appraisal and economic analysis to determine the property’s value. They also conducted lengthy genealogical studies. (More than 100 people went through the county’s statutory heir determination process to verify if they were related to Charles and Willa Bruce.)

Mitchell, chairman of the county board of supervisors, gathered everyone to sign all paperwork right after the vote so there would be no further delay in returning the property.

“I purposely emphasize the word return,” said Mitchell, whose office worked with the Bruce family and a committee to put up a sign on the property detailing the story of what happened. “Because today we don’t give property to anyone. We are returning property wrongly taken from the Bruces out of fear and hatred.”

Kavon Ward, who has campaigned on the cause through her grassroots Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, said she’s thrilled that land restitution is finally happening, but urged other government leaders to ensure Bruce’s Beach isn’t a one-time thing.

“I rely on the governor of the state of California to lead by example and do the right thing so that other states can repeat the successes,” said Ward, who has helped five other black California families in Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Coloma , Hayward and Canyon with stories similar to the Bruces. “Putting aside a family and not helping the others is not a good example.”

Across California, reparations advocates and Indigenous leaders also welcomed the news Tuesday, but stressed there was much more history to be revealed.

“There is a long legacy of colonial injustice and this is a great first step in making amends for this community. I truly hope that other communities — including the local Tongva, Acjachemen and Tataviam Indigenous communities — will also be considered for future restitution of our ancestral lands,” said Wallace Cleaves, who has navigated similar unknown land restitution challenges as President of the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy.

Angela Mooney D’Arcy, who directs the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous People, a grassroots group run by Native Americans in California, said her organization supports justice for the Bruce family – but urged officials to involve local Indigenous communities who were left out.

“It is vitally important that by addressing this momentous issue, you do not inadvertently continue the erasure of another community that has also suffered great injustices at the hands of white, racist, racist culture,” she said, emphasizing this Issues “need to be addressed consciously and thoughtfully, as there can be no healing when the healing of one community rests on the annihilation of another community.”

In a letter to the county, she asked officials to state in their records that Bruce’s Beach is in the ancestral homeland of the Gabrielino Tongva people. She also called on county officials to develop a process to meet with local Indigenous leaders and form a task force “to identify, examine and evaluate how the county’s current and future efforts to promote racial justice and healing.” bring about better information, support and complement each other.”

For Anthony Bruce, great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa Bruce, the past two years have been a riot of emotions.

What Manhattan Beach did almost a century ago had torn his family apart. Charles and Willa ended up being chefs serving other business owners for the rest of their lives. His grandfather Bernard, who was born a few years after his family was evicted from town, became obsessed with what had happened and lived his life “extremely angry at the world.” Bruce’s father, tormented by this story, had to leave California.

Bruce, a Florida safety warden, had come under the spotlight after Bruce’s Beach became a national story. It has been painful for him to speak publicly about his family’s history, but it has encouraged him to see the growing movement of people demanding justice.

“Many families in the United States have been evicted from their homes and lands,” he said. “I hope these monumental events will encourage such families to continue to have faith and faith that one day they will get what they deserve. We hope that our country will no longer accept prejudice as acceptable behavior and we must stand united against it because it has no place in our society today.” County officials approve transfer of Bruce’s Beach property

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