Back in 1912 a young Black couple in Manhattan Beach, a Southern California town, purchased the land at the Strand and 26th Street and opened Bruce's Beach, a resort run for and by Black people. This was welcomed by all African Americans who had until then hardly had the opportunity to experience the area's coastal beauty. Bruce's Beach was a vibe, with soulful energy and the music from Black entertainers echoing along the coastline.
Photo: Charles and Willa Bruce
However, during a time of segregation, Charles and Willa Bruce received tremendous harassment from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, who wished to uphold the racial segregation that existed. It was made clear to Black beachgoers that they weren't welcome as they found the air let out of their parked car tires, and ropes were purposely scattered across the sand. The KKK attempted to burn down the property which resulted in a local Black family's home being burned down.
The final straw came in 1924 when the city officials seized the property through eminent domain as the city intended to build a public park on the land. After years of litigation the Bruces, who had sought $120,000, were given $14,000 a mere fraction of what they had asked for. Sadly, the Bruces were forced to leave and died just a few years later.
Now, almost a century later, the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce are seeking justice to right this historical wrong, though it has been no easy feat in Manhattan Beach which is less than 1% Black today. "This is a reckoning that has been long overdue," said their 38-year-old great-great-grandson Anthony Bruce. "For me and the generations after, this would mean an inheritance - and that internal security of knowing that I come from somewhere, that I come from a people."
The couple purchased the plot of land by the ocean for $1,225 and built facilities including changing rooms and a coffee shop. The significance of Bruce's Beach was profound. It quickly became one of the top Black leisure locations, providing a beautiful place for Black families to gather, relax, socialize and take in the beauty of California life.
In 1912 Willa Bruce told the LA Times, "[w]herever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it."
The land was left vacant by the city for years before they took ownership in 1929. In 1995 ownership of the property was transferred from Manhattan Beach to Los Angeles County. Today, the county estimates that Bruce's property is worth $75 million.
On April 6, 2021, the current Manhattan Beach City Council finally adopted a resolution formally acknowledged that the taking of this property was wrong, and condemned the city's actions of a century ago involving Bruce's Beach, though they failed to issue an apology. The council agreed to install new historical markers at the site.
"The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago," the City Council said, "the community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion. Today's residents are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago."
Over the years the city park has held a variety of names, and it was not until 2006 that the city agreed to rename the park "Bruce's Beach" in honor of the Bruce family. While it recognizes the family name, this has been deemed as a hollow gesture toward the family.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to vote on Tuesday whether to return the scenic and valuable parcel of land to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce. Acting on a motion by LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, the board will take two votes; one to direct the county's chief executive officer to come up with a plan to return the property to the family, and another to sponsor Senate Bill 796, legislation required to make the transfer possible.
"I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I'm embarrassed to be honest that I did not know this story until last year," Hahn said. "I grew up learning to swim in the ocean a few blocks from what was Bruce's Beach ... So when I finally heard this story, I felt there was nothing else I could do but figure out how to return this property."