As It Happens

A Black family's California land was taken from them a century ago. Their descendants just got it back

It’s been almost a century since a California municipality seized a piece of prime beachfront property from a Black family and paid them a pittance for it. Now, after years of legal wrangling, the land once again belongs to the Bruce family.

County returns Bruce's Beach to Bruce family 98 years after a municipality seized it under eminent domain

A Black man wit a goatee and freckles smiles brightly while standing in front of a several of microphones.
Anthony Bruce smiles before California Gov. Gavin Newsom signs Bruce's Beach Bill into law on Sept. 30, 2021, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., clearing the way for Los Angeles County to return the land to his family. (H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press)

It's been almost a century since a California municipality seized a piece of prime beachfront property from a Black family and paid them a pittance for it. 

Now, after years of legal wrangling, the land once again belongs to the Bruce family.

Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of the land's original owners, told As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa the news is a "joyous occasion" for his family — but also a "bittersweet" one.

"We're really glad that this is taking place in our lives today. It's just, unfortunately, there's always the reminder of what we had just survived and gone through, the turmoil of this taking so long," he said.

"It's kind of like if you had just survived a near-death experience, you know. It's like a relief. But, whew, we're glad it's over."

Driven out by a racist campaign 

Willa and Charles Bruce, a married couple, first bought the land in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in 1912 and opened a hot dog and lemonade stand.

The couple went on to expand their business into a resort, with a restaurant, dance hall and bath house called Bruce's Beach. It became a destination for Black vacationers, entertainers and residents of Manhattan Beach.

But that all changed in the 1920s when, according to the family, there was a concerted effort by white neighbours, the local government and the Ku Klux Klan to drive them out.

"The Ku Klux Klan started a campaign," Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, another of the Willa and Charles' descendents, told As It Happens last year.  "There were cross burnings, mattress burnings under porches, tires being slashed."

Anthony Bruce says his great-great-grandparents were harassed and targeted by those who were trying to push back against what they considered a "Negro invasion" of the area.

A black and white wedding photograph of a young Black couple.
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)

In 1924, the Manhattan Beach City Council seized the land through eminent domain, a legal principle that allows the government to expropriate private property for public use. 

"You can't just tell people to move from their land and their property," Anthony Bruce said. "They're going to fight and they're going to stay there."

Willa and Charles Bruce did, indeed, fight — but to no avail.  A court injunction forced the couple to sell their property to the city for $14,000 US, a fraction of the land's $70,000 US value at the time.

The family — along with many other Black residents — left the area.

"There were no opportunities given to them," Anthony Bruce said. "In fact, all opportunities were taken from them."

The city demolished the family's resort, claiming it was making way for a public park. 

But instead, the land remained empty and unused for decades until Manhattan Beach transferred it to the state of California in 1948, which finally opened a park in 1957. 

In 1995, the state transferred it to the county, with restrictions on further transfers.

The fight to get their land back

But generations of Bruces have been fighting to get their land back, culminating in victory on Tuesday when The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to return it to Willa and Charles's descendants.

"We can't change the past and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago, but this is a start," county supervisor Janice Hahn, who launched the complex process of returning the property in April 2021, said before the vote.

An older Black woman stands next to a large cement structure with the words 'Bruce's Beach' and a plaque, the text of which cannot be read in this picture, as a younger person snaps picture on a cellphone.
People take pictures at Bruce's Beach. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

In order to make the land return possible, the state legislature passed a bill last year removing the restriction on transfer of the property.

"The land in the City of Manhattan Beach, which was wrongfully taken from Willa and Charles Bruce, should be returned to their living descendants, and it is in the public interest of the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Manhattan Beach, and the People of the State of California to do so," the legislation reads.

Sen. Steve Bradford, the bill's author and a member of the state's reparations task force, told CNN: "This is what reparations look like."

What's next?

Currently, Bruce's Beach is home to a park and a lifeguard training facility.

The land transfer includes an agreement for the property to be leased back to the county for 24 months, with an annual rent of $413,000 US plus all operation and maintenance costs.

The agreement also gives the county the right to buy the land back for up to $20 million US.

A Bruce family reunion at Bruce's Beach. (Submitted by Duane Yellow Feather Shepard)

The family hasn't said yet what it plans to do with the property in the long run.

"We're leaving the door open right now," Anthony Bruce said. "It is just one of those things where we're learning how to be affluent Americans again. But we are the Bruce family and we are going to continue to set up shop somewhere, and hopefully it will be a thriving business like it was before."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Anthony Bruce produced by Arman Aghbali. 

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