As It Happens

California county to return the land they took from a Black family 96 years ago

A century ago, a beach resort in Southern California was taken from Black owners by white city officials. The owners, Willa and Charles Bruce, faced racism and harassment from the white-run city, fighting until their death to get their property back.

Willa and Charles Bruce were forced to sell their beach resort. Now, their descendants will inherent the land

Bruce family representative Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard speaks at a press conference in Manhattan Beach on April 9. (Britanny Murray/The Orange County Register/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

A century ago, a beach resort in Southern California was taken from Black owners by white city officials. The owners, Willa and Charles Bruce, faced racism and harassment from the white-run city, fighting until their death to get their property back.

Now their descendants are finally getting Bruce's Beach back. 

"We've been fighting for 96 years to get our land back and for justice for our family," Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, one of the couple's descendents, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"When this happens for us, then other people are going to stand up and say ... 'We can fight for this too' and 'We need to get our lands returned to us as well."

Los Angeles County Officials are working with state lawmakers on legislation that would return the property, now worth $75 million US, to the Bruces' descendents. 

"The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them," Janice Hahn, a county supervisor, said during a news conference last week. "Generations of their descendants ... almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business."

A bustling business forced out

Willa Bruce bought the land on Manhattan Beach and opened up a hot dog and lemonade stand there in 1912. They went on to expand the business into a resort, with a restaurant, dance hall and bath house. It became a destination for Black vacationers, entertainers and residents of Manhattan Beach.

But that all changed in 1920, when there was a concerted effort to drive them out, says Shepard, who is the spokesperson for the Bruce family, as well as an elected chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe. 

"The Ku Klux Klan started a campaign," Shepard said. "There were cross burnings, mattress burnings under porches, tires being slashed."

Throughout the early 1900s, Willa and Charles Bruce turned two empty lots along the water in a community outside Los Angeles into a destination for Black vacationers, entertainers and residents of Manhattan Beach, Calif. (Submitted by Duane Yellow Feather Shepard)

The Manhattan Beach Police Department made it difficult for visitors to stay long by putting up 10-minute parking signs. 

The original owner who sold the land to Willa also caused trouble for their business. George Peck cordoned it off so that patrons could not access the beach from the front of the property. Instead, they had to walk a half mile north or south in order to get into the water.

Shepard says the pressure on the Bruce family business continued for years. Eventually, the Manhattan Beach City Council seized the resort under eminent domain — a government power to force the sale of private land for public purposes.

A court injunction forced the couple to sell for $14,000 US, while the land itself was worth $70,000.

"It was an illegal municipal policy of the Manhattan Beach City Council to take the land under eminent domain to make it a park," Shepard said. "Not only from the Bruces ... but other Black people that lived there."

A Bruce family reunion at the California beach that was taken from their ancestors by white city officials 96 years ago. (Submitted by Duane Yellow Feather Shepard)

It took three years for them to receive their payment, and the city didn't build the park until 1957.

"The land sat vacant and unkept for 30 years," Shepard said. 

The Bruce family eventually moved to the eastside of Los Angeles "in fear and terror for their lives," he said. Willa and Charles then worked as cooks in other people's diners.

"They didn't live very long," Shepard said. "Willa Bruce pretty much lost her mind. She died within five years.... Charles Bruce, he died a couple of years after that."

Claiming the land

For 96 years, the Bruce family has been fighting to get the beachfront property back from the city. For some time, Bernard Bruce picked up his grandparents' fight, to no avail.

"They just didn't have the resources that we have now. The social media and the media picking it up," Shepard said. "Manhattan Beach is in the crosshairs of the entire world right now…. Nobody condones the acts that railroaded our family out."

Once the land transfer is approved, Shepard says there are a few options on the table. 

"It could either be given back to us, or they can pay us for it," Shepard said. "Or, it can be given to us in ownership, and then we can lease it back to the county so they can keep their lifeguard training facility there. We'll charge them a fair market value rent for it for 99 years."


Written by Mehek Mazhar with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Duane Yellow Feather Shepard produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now