Newsom signs bill to return Bruce’s Beach to the Black family

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In a landmark move celebrated by reparations advocates and social justice leaders across California, Governor Gavin Newsom authorized the return of the property known as Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a black couple who had been driven from Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago. .

Senate Bill 796, enacted Thursday by Newsom before an excited crowd gathered on the property, confirms the city’s takeover of this waterfront land – on which the Bruces ran a thriving beach-goer resort black – was racially motivated and made under false and illegal pretexts.

“The land in the city of Manhattan Beach, which was illegally taken from Willa and Charles Bruce, should be returned to their living descendants,” the legislation says, “and it is in the public interest of the State of California. , Los Angeles County, the City of Manhattan Beach, and the people of the State of California to do so. “

The bill passed unanimously this month by the state legislature and includes an emergency clause that allows Los Angeles County, which currently owns the property, to immediately begin the process of land transfer.

State Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who drafted the bill, said it was a first step towards correcting the many injustices that continue to haunt the history of the State and nation.

“This bill sets the tone for the future of repairs in California,” said Bradford, who is a member of the recently formed California repair task force. “If you can inherit generational wealth, you can inherit generational debt. The city of Manhattan Beach owes the Bruce family a debt. The State of California is in debt to the Bruce family, and Los Angeles County is in debt to the Bruce family – and our governor is here today to sign this bill to pay that debt to the Bruce family.

The Bruce’s Beach story has gained more and more attention over the past year – and has sparked quite a bit of controversy in the all-white city of Manhattan Beach. (Black residents to this day make up less than 1% of the population.) Some longtime community leaders have pushed back against the idea that people today should be held accountable for injustices committed 100 years ago, while that others have called for restitution.

Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa Bruce, takes off his mask before speaking at a press conference where California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, authorizing the return of the Bruce family’s oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The fact that county and state officials – and now the governor – take action marks a watershed moment for the state and the nation. Many say that Bruce’s Beach could pave the way for those looking for ways to heed our country’s history of violently dispossessing indigenous peoples and preventing blacks, Japanese Americans, Latinos, and more. others to create generational wealth.

Newsom, flanked by state and county heads, as well as Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern, justice advocates and members of the Bruce family, has made his position clear on the past and future of Bruce’s Beach.

“As governor of California, let me do what Manhattan Beach apparently doesn’t want to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family,” said Newsom, who signed the bill in front of dozens of people. cameras and handed the pen to Anthony Bruce, whose great-great-grandparents once owned the land.

“I really believe it can be catalytic,” Newsom said. “What we do here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There is an old adage: once a mind is stretched, it never returns to its original form.

The story of Bruce’s Beach begins with the Tongva, who roamed this windy coast before George Peck and others claimed ownership in the early 1900s and developed what is known today as Manhattan Beach. .

In 1912, Willa Bruce bought the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th Street for $ 1,225. While her husband, Charles, worked as a dining car chef on the train from Salt Lake City to LA, Willa ran a popular lodge, cafe, and dance hall – offering black families a way to enjoy a weekend. -end on the coast.

Many have called this area Bruce Beach. A few other black families, drawn to this new community, bought and built their own cabins by the sea.

But the Bruces and their guests have endured years of threats and harassment from white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan reportedly set a mattress under the main deck on fire and burned down a black-owned house nearby.

When racism failed to drive the Bruce’s Beach community out of town, city officials in 1924 condemned the neighborhood and seized more than two dozen properties in a prominent estate. The reason, they said, was an urgent need for a public park.

But for decades the properties sat empty. The Bruce’s two beachfront plots were transferred to the state in 1948, then to the county in 1995. As for the remaining lots, city officials eventually turned them into a lovely park overlooking the sea.

An aerial view of the oceanfront properties seized by Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago

Almost a century ago, the city of Manhattan Beach seized the properties that make up the park known today as Bruce’s Beach. In 1995, the parcels closest to the ocean were moved to Los Angeles County.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn realized the county now owned the plots where the Bruce Complex once stood, she took action. She called Charles and Willa Bruce’s great-great-grandson and started discussions with state lawmakers, county attorneys and appraisers.

Hahn called the governor’s signing – and the unanimous support of the state legislature – a milestone. Now, she said, it’s up to the county to get things done.

“The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and today’s law will return it,” she said with LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell by her side.

“My goal over the next few months will be to transfer this property in a way that not only works for the Bruce family, but is a model that other local governments can follow,” she said. “The return of Bruce’s Beach can and should set a precedent for this nation, and I know all eyes will be on Los Angeles County as this work is in progress.”

One option on the table is to transfer the land with a ground lease to the county to continue the lifesaving operations currently on the property – and to pay fair rent to the Bruce family.

A preliminary report from county staff released this summer laid out the many details that still need to be worked out: appraising the value of the property, verifying legal descent, determining the actual terms of the lease and other technical details.

George Fatheree, a real estate transaction attorney who represents Bruce’s descendants and has helped them navigate the process pro bono, said he was encouraged by the progress so far, but warned the transfer of land had to be run flawlessly. His team looked at every possible detail that could backfire on them, as well as any unintended consequences that could make this process vulnerable to legal challenges.

“We have to do this exactly right. People are watching, ”said Fatheree, who said the issue has been close to her heart for years. “We want to make sure it’s a success and a potential role model for others.”

As for Manhattan Beach, which has the remaining condemned properties that had been turned into a park, questions remain about how to get out of this uncomfortable past. Numerous disputes have exploded over the past year – from disagreements over the history itself (and how to revamp the school curriculum to teach it), to whether the city should even apologize. formal.

Activist Kavon Ward is raised and recognized by Gov. Gavin Newsom

Activist Kavon Ward was raised and recognized by Governor Gavin Newsom, before signing SB 796, authorizing the return of oceanfront lands to the Bruce family in Manhattan Beach.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Kavon Ward, who has championed the cause through her grassroots movement Justice for Bruce’s Beach, said she was empowered by Thursday’s news but stressed the work was just beginning.

“My heart, my mind, my soul have been there from the start. … It took bold courage, ”said Ward, who recently created a national organization called Where Is My Land to help other black families with Bruce-like histories. “I am empowered to continue this bold courage as I move forward in helping other Black families achieve restorative and restorative justice.”

For Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa Bruce, the past few months have been a jumble of emotions.

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

Today Bruce works as a security supervisor in Florida. It has been painful to speak publicly about the beach that bears his family’s name, but Bruce is encouraged by the new movement of people calling for justice.

He paused, considering the relief that might finally be at hand.

“We thank God because this is something we have prayed for for decades,” he said. “I hope this is the start of a new beginning for us.”


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