Charles and Willa Bruce’s beachfront property outside Los Angeles is finally being returned to the Black family from whom it was stolen 98 years ago.
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Thursday, Sept. 30, a bill that will allow Los Angeles County to return a certain stretch of Manhattan Beach property to the descendants of a couple from whom it was wrongly taken in 1924: Charles and Willa Bruce.
The property consists of two lots that together are worth about $75 million.
The Bruces, an African American couple, bought the property for $1,225 in 1912.
They were inspired by an African American entrepreneur of the day, Madam C.J. Walker, an innovator in hair care products.
The Bruces wanted to be successful entrepreneurs as well, and they succeeded in this. The property became known as Bruce’s Beach, which attracted many black families in the Jim Crow era in which most of the beaches, public and private, were “whites only.”
Charles and Willa Bruce’s History
Charles and Willa Bruce had come to southern California from New Mexico. They were among the first black families to settle in what is now known as Manhattan Beach.
Their business, (a lodge with café, dance hall, cabanas, and bathing suit rentals), though successful, was always subject to harassment from white neighbors and from the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan tried to set the property on fire. When that didn’t work, the Klan tried again, and this time succeeded, in burning down a nearby Black family’s home.
But private scare tactics didn’t work. So the local government had to be called in. In 1924 the city took the land from Charles and Willa Bruce under eminent domain, paying a pittance, on the pretext that they wanted to use it for a park.
The state later transferred the property to the county. Los Angeles County Supervisors tried last spring to return the property to the Bruice family, but found that they weren’t allowed to dio so under state law.
When the county supervisors attempted to return the property to the Bruce family last spring, they discovered state eminent domain law prevented them from doing so.
The drafting of the new law, SB 796, was the work of Sen. Steve Bradford, who sits on the reparations task force.
The issue now returns to the county, and specifically to Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn.
What Reparations Look Like
“This is what reparations look like,” Bradford said, at Newsom’s signing ceremony. It isn’t, he said, a matter of giving anyone anything, but of restoring stolen goods.
Nobody will believe that this will be the final incident of reparations for race-based theft. Some expect and hope that it will be a valuable precedent and inducement. Patricia Bruce, a cousin of Charles and Willa Bruce, told the AP at the ceremony, “There are other families waiting for this very day, to have their land returned to them.”
Not everyone has been supportive. This April, the Manhattan Beach city council voted down a symbolic proclamation to apologize to the Bruice family, out of a concern that an apology would make the city liable for lawsuits.
An anonymous group calling itself “Concerned Residents of MB” took out full-page ads in a local paper complaining of the “woke mob” that has exaggerated the history of racism in their town.
But County Supervisor Hahn says, “The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back.”
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