California Lawmakers Unanimously Vote To Return Oceanfront Land To Black Owners After It Was Seized Almost 100 Years Ago
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who still needs to sign the legislation.
September 10, 2021 at 8:45 pm
Update (Sept. 10, 2021): Los Angeles County may soon return oceanfront land that was taken from its original Black owners in the 1920s. The California State Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to pass a landmark bill that would require the county to return the land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.
The couple, who purchased the land in Los Angeles County’s Manhattan Beach in 1912, originally dedicated the resort to Black people, The Daily News reports. That was at a time when Black people had limited access to the ocean and beaches.
In 1924, the city seized the property through eminent domain and created a park now known as Bruce’s Beach Park. Willa and Charles sued for racial discrimination and eventually received $14,500. However, they never got their land back, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Manhattan Beach transferred the land to the state in 1948. The state then gave it to Los Angeles County in 1995, according to Fox News. Although the county has not been legally allowed to give the land back to the Bruces, the latest bill is designed to reverse the law.
"I’m elated, walking on water right now," Duane Shepard, a distant descendant of the Bruces, said. "This is one of the greatest things in American history right now."
The office of Sen. Steven Bradford stated that the physical pages of SB 796 will now be sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor’s spokesperson said the bill will be evaluated once it reaches his desk.
Bradford, who authored SB 796, said the bill has received wide bipartisan support.
“SB 796 represents economic and historic justice and is a model of what reparations can truly look like,” he said.
Original (April 14, 2021): Almost 100 years ago, Charles and Willa Bruce, who were facing racial discrimination and harassment from the Ku Klux Klan, had their profitable California beach resort seized from them by city government procedures and were paid a fraction of their asking price.
Family spokesperson Duane Shepard said the Bruces endured "physical, mental, social and emotional stress" as a result of being displaced as the city took the land through eminent domain and promised to build a park. They died five years after the property was claimed by the city of Manhattan.
On Friday, Los Angeles County officials announced that they are working with state lawmakers on a bill that would return the property, estimated at a value of $75 million, to the descendants of the family, according to CNN.
"The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them," LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn said. "Generations of their descendants ... almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business."
Prior to the city’s seizure, the couple’s property, known as Bruce's Beach, was an escape for Black families to enjoy the affluent California life. The property was purchased by the Bruces in 1912 for $1,225 and they proceeded to build a number of facilities on the land, including a cafe, CNN reports.
With the popular resort attracting Black travelers and vacationers, white residents of the local community grew to resent the couple and saw to have them removed, a family representative said.
Klan members posted "no trespassing signs" and caused damage to the vehicles of Black families so they would be discouraged from frequenting the area. As CNN reports, white supremacists tried to burn the resort and succeeded in destroying a local Black family's home in the area.
Despite the acts of terror from the community, Charles and Willa were resilient and kept the property open to visitors until the city government condemned the property in 1929, ABC 7 reports.
Today, the property is now a park with a lawn and boasts a lifeguard training facility. The property is no longer in possession of Manhattan Beach as it was transferred to the state and to LA County in 1995.
Bruce's Beach, a stretch of beachfront property in Manhattan Beach that was wrongfully seized from a Black family about 91-years-ago, could soon be returned to them. L.A. County officials will make an announcement on the issue Friday morning. https://t.co/et4oVxPS7u pic.twitter.com/V24CopTSnK— CBS Los Angeles (@CBSLA) April 9, 2021
A bill will be introduced this week that will make the Bruce's property exempt from restrictions that limit the county's process to transfer the property. Pending Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature, the transfer process to the Bruces’ descendants could be finalized by the end of the year.
Sen. Steve Bradford, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, expressed that he is proud to endorse the legislation in Sacramento and defend the rights of Black families.
"Sadly, the Bruce story is not unique here in California or across this nation,'' Bradford, who co-authored the bill, said.
Manhattan authorities have acknowledged the property’s history and spoke out against racism and hate. However, city officials left out an official apology from their statement, per ABC 7.
"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."
Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard, a descendant of the Bruce family, criticized the city council’s Friday announcement. He said the family would take further legal action to be fully compensated for the seizure of the land, as well as restitution for lost earnings from what the resort would have earned over the past century, ABC 7 reports.