A Beachfront Property Taken From A Black Family A Century Ago May Soon Be Returned

Sep 10, 2021
Originally published on September 10, 2021 1:38 pm

In 1924, a flourishing beach resort for Black people along the Southern California coast was seized by the local city government through eminent domain.

The stated reason was to build a park, but historical records show the resort was shut down because the resort's owners and its patrons were Black.

Now, an effort to return what is known as Bruce's Beach to the descendants of its original owners — and make amends for a historical wrong — is poised to become reality.

The California Legislature gave its final approval Thursday night to a bill that would let Los Angeles County officials give Bruce's Beach back to the family that owned it nearly a century ago.

An aerial view shows Bruce's Beach (center) wedged between expensive real estate in April in Manhattan Beach.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

All that's needed is a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom, whom lawmakers expect to give "quick approval" to the bipartisan legislation, Spectrum News 1 reported.

"I'm elated, walking on water right now," Duane Shepard, a Bruce descendant and family historian, said Thursday, according to the Southern California News Group. "This is one of the greatest things in American history right now."

The rise and fall of Bruce's Beach

Married couple Willa and Charles Bruce began purchasing land along the shoreline in the city of Manhattan Beach, just outside Los Angeles, in 1912.

The pair ran a successful resort for Black families — the spot was quickly dubbed Bruce's Beach — during a time when Jim Crow laws were common and Black people had limited access to the beach, the Southern California News Group reported.

But white landowners suggested the growing Black population would depreciate land prices. They were also angry over the success of Bruce's Beach.

According to a report Manhattan Beach prepared in April, historical documents indicate that "white neighbors resented the resort's growing popularity and prosperity of its African American owners."

Ultimately, it was the Bruces' own government that ended their run in the seaside community.

According to the text of the bill, the Manhattan Beach board of trustees voted in 1924 to condemn Bruce's Beach and the surrounding land, taking control of it through eminent domain.

A photo of Charles and Willa Bruce is attached to a plaque marking Bruce's Beach in April in Manhattan Beach.
Mario Tama / Getty Images

The board also enacted ordinances preventing the opening of any new beach resorts, effectively blocking the Bruces from relocating their business within the city limits.

"As a result of these intentional racially discriminatory acts, the Bruces lost their land and their business, the Bruce family moved out of the City of Manhattan Beach, and the city immediately demolished the Bruce's Beach resort," the bill said.

Why does transferring the land require a new law?

Because the action against the Bruces involved government bureaucracy, it's not as easy as simply turning over the property to the descendants of the family.

After a series of land transfers, the plots formerly belonging to the couple were given to Los Angeles County.

But state law requires the county to use Bruce's Beach for public recreation and prevents it from transferring or selling the property.

The bill that has now gained final legislative approval would eliminate that restriction for Bruce's Beach.

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