Prime beachfront property seized in 1920s returned to family of original Black owners

Beachfront property that was seized by a California community in the 1920s then transferred to the state, has been returned to the descendants of the original owners.

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Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach was purchased by Willa and Charles Bruce in 1912. It was the first West Coast resort for Black people when many resorts were segregated, The Associated Press reported.

The Bruces purchased two lots and opened a lodge, cafe and dance hall, The Los Angeles Times reported.

But white neighbors harassed the Bruces and their guests were threatened by neighbors. According to the newspaper, the Bruces were also targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1924, Manhattan Beach City Council condemned the neighborhood and took the land using eminent domain, claiming that a public park was urgently needed, but did nothing with the prime real estate. The city council transferred it to the state in 1948, which transferred ownership to the county in 1995. At that time, the state restricted further transfers.

In April 2021, Supervisor Janice Hahn started the movement to give the land back to the Bruce family. First, the state legislature had to remove the transfer restrictions.

Then the county had to confirm that Marcus and Derrick Bruce, who are the great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, were the couple’s legal heirs.

This week, after about 100 years, the Bruce family is now the owners of the beachfront land. The vote to return the land was unanimous, The Los Angeles Times reported.

“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,” Hahn said before the vote, according to the AP.

She added that this gives the Bruce family “the opportunity to start rebuilding the generational wealth that was denied them for decades.”

Family spokesperson Anthony Bruce said that the return of the property is bittersweet.

“My great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles Bruce sacrificed to open a business that gave Black people a place to gather and socialize, and Manhattan Beach took it from them because of the color of their skin,” he said. “It destroyed them financially. It destroyed their chance at the American Dream.”

The land will be leased to the county for two years with an annual rent of $413,000 plus operation and maintenance costs.

The county will have the right to purchase the land after that period for up to $20 million and any transfer costs, the LA Times reported.

There are several properties in the areas of Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Coloma, Heyward and Canyon that were also taken from Black families, who may eventually regain ownership of these properties One activist hopes that it is just the beginning to correct the past.

“I’m relying on the governor to set an example and do the right thing in the state of California so that other states can replicate the successes,” Kavon Ward, who started a grassroots movement Justice for Bruce’s Beach, told the Times. “Pulling one family aside and not helping the rest is not setting a good example.”

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