California Governor Gavin Newsom has returned prime beachfront land worth an estimated $72 million to the descendants of a black family it was seized from in 1924.
Gavin Newsom signed a law transferring the ownership of Bruce’s Beach, a small park now worth an estimated $72 million, back to the Bruce family.
It currently serves as a grassy park and lifeguard training facility. The Bruces have the option to sell it, lease it back to the local authority for the market rate, or develop it as they wish, with the plot exempt from local zoning laws.
The land, in Manhattan Beach, was bought by Willa and Charles Bruce in 1912 for $1,225 and taken from them by the local council in 1924, following Ku Klux Klan protests against the thriving beach resort operating on the site.
For decades the family campaigned to have it returned to them, and in April the city council agreed to hand the land back.
They will be able to do what they wish with the plot – despite zoning laws that require beachfront property in the city to be ‘used for public recreation and beach purposes in perpetuity.’
On Thursday Newsom signed into law legislation unanimously approved by state politicians earlier this month, and rebuked the local council for failing to apologize for the seizure of the land.
Gavin Newsom is seen on Thursday handing over the pen with which he signed the new law to Anthony Bruce (far right), whose great-great-grandparents had once owned Bruce’s Beach
Anthony Bruce, the great great grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce is all smiles as Governor Gavin Newsom signs SB 796, a bill to return Manhattan Beach land to descendants of its original owners
Willa and Charles Bruce brought the property in 1912 during the early 20th century after moving from New Mexico with their son Harvey
The Los Angeles beachfront property ‘Bruce’s Beach’s is being returned to the descendants of resort owners after it was taken from them due to racist policies
The city of Manhattan Beach issued a statement acknowledging and condemning its city’s actions from the early 20th century – but the statement stopped short of a formal apology.
‘We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years,’ a document approved by the council says.
‘And the actions we will take together, to the best of our abilities, in deeds and in words, to reject prejudice and hate and promote respect and inclusion.’
Newsom told the crowd: ‘As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family.’
He signed the bill before dozens of cameras and handed the pen to Anthony Bruce, whose great-great-grandparents had once owned the land.
‘I really believe this can be catalytic,’ Newsom said.
Newsom on Thursday apologized for the generations of harm done to the Bruce family
Anthony Bruce is seen in an old photo by the sign declaring the name Bruce’s Beach
Derrick Bruce, the great-grandson of the original Bruce Beach owners (second from left) and his sons Anthony (right) and Michael (left) will take ownership of the Manhattan Beach property after Newsom signed the legislation
‘What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage: Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form.’
Anthony Bruce, a security supervisor who lives in Florida, said his family had been tormented by the seizure of their rightful property for generations.
Charles and Willa contested the eminent domain order and lost; the city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.
Instead of continuing to run a thriving resort on prime beachfront land, they ended up as chefs serving other business owners for the remainder of their lives.
Bruce’s grandfather Bernard, born a few years after his family had been run out of town, was obsessed with what happened and lived his life ‘extremely angry at the world,’ he said.
Bruce’s father was unable to bear living in California and moved away from the state.
‘I was five years old when my father told me that my great-great-grandparents’ business on a beautiful stretch of Manhattan Beach had been taken away from them decades earlier,’ wrote Bruce, in an op ed in The Los Angeles Times, published on Thursday.
‘It was a shocking and disturbing revelation for me as a young boy.’
Michael Bruce (pictured left) and his brother Anthony (pictured right) are the great-great grandchildren of Willa and Charles Bruce, who stand to finally inherit their family’s property after it was taken via eminent domain in 1924
Bruce’s Beach was a popular destination for black families in the early 20th century who were looking to go on a vacation without the stress of racial tensions
The resort featured a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent
‘We do thank God, because this is something that we’ve been praying for, for decades,’ he said.
‘Hopefully this is the start of a new beginning for us.’
The land was handed over to Anthony Bruce and Michael Bruce, the great-great grandchildren of the original resort owners, and their father Derrick Bruce.
‘When I was growing up, my father took us to Bruce’s beach,’ Anthony said in an April interview with BNC News.
‘It wasn’t called that back then, it was called another name and he said ‘all this land is yours. I want you to know that this is your inheritance and you’re going to have to fight for it. As it stands its not ours, but as it is its our legacy.”
The case was championed by Kavon Ward, an activist who learnt about the land’s history and founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach.
‘This country always likes to say: ‘You can make it. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” she said.
‘These people were doing that, and they were building community and spreading the wealth within the community and enhancing other black people, and it was all stripped away.’
Anthony Bruce said in the op ed: ‘I’ll never know if my family’s business would have grown to rival that of Hilton or Marriott, both of which were founded around the same time as Bruce’s Beach and grew from equally humble beginnings.
‘I have plans to one day soon return to my family’s land. When I go back to that stretch of Manhattan Beach, I won’t think only of the injustice done to my ancestors. I’ll also think of the progress our country has made.’
County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who led a government push to transfer the land, said the heirs would almost certainly be millionaires now if the property had not been taken.
‘The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back,’ Hahn said.
Kavon Ward stands to the right of Gavin Newsom on Thursday, during a ceremony to sign the bill into law. Janice Hahm is far right, in yellow dress
Los Angeles Supervisor Janice Hahn, pictured in April announcing the return of the beach, was a major advocate for the return of the property to descendants of the Bruce family
The property along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first West Coast resort for black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches.
It included a lodge, cafe, dance hall and dressing tents.
The land lay unused for years, however, and was transferred to the state in 1948.
In 1995, it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. It came with restrictions limiting the ability to sell or transfer the property, which could only be lifted through a new state law.
The county’s lifeguard training headquarters building sits there now, along a scenic beach walkway called The Strand that is lined with luxury homes overlooking the beach.
In Manhattan Beach, an upscale Los Angeles seaside suburb, the population of 35,000 is more than 84 per cent white and 0.8 per cent black, the city website says.
This year, the City Council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to displace the Bruces and several other Black families.
The county, meanwhile, has outlined steps needed to move forward with the transfer, including assessing the value of the parcels and trying to find a means to lessen the tax burden on the heirs.
The county also needs to vet the legal heirs of the Bruces and possibly find a new site for the lifeguard training headquarters.
One option would have the heirs lease the land back to the county for continued use.
The family has not yet specified what they will do with the land.
Should the Bruce family decide to sell the property, the bill’s new wording would exempt them from a documentary transfer tax, and would shield profits made from the land’s scale from taxation.
‘Plans for the property… [are] personal and between us, the attorneys, and the County of Los Angeles,’ said Duane Shepard, a cousin of the direct descendants of the property and a long-standing spokesman for the reacquisition of the beach.
Key dates in battle for Bruce’s Beach
1912 – Willa and Charles Bruce, who moved to California from New Mexico, buy a beachfront plot of land in Manhattan Beach. She had purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets. They open up a resort.
1924 – Manhattan Beach city council orders the Bruces sell, via eminent domain. They say they need to build a park. The Bruces challenge it in court, but lose. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.
1950s – The area had sat empty for decades, but the city council began to realize that questions might be asked unless the park, for which the land was supposedly taken, was not built. They create City Park, later renamed Beachfront, then Bayview Terrace Park. In 1974, it was named after a sister city in Mexico, Parque Culiacan.
2006 – Amid a growing interest in the history of the area, the city council voted 3-2 to rename the beach after the Bruce family — largely because of an appeal by Councilman Mitch Ward, the city’s first black elected official.
2017 – Kavon Ward moves to the area and hears the story of Bruce’s Beach. She begins campaigning to hand it back to the original owners.
2018 – A Bruce family reunion is held at the beach, with around 150 people attending.
2021 – The City Council agrees to hand the land back to the Bruce family.
September 30, 2021 – California’s governor Gavin Newsom signs into law SB 796, a bill to return the Manhattan Beach land to descendants of its original owners.
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