Two parcels of oceanfront property in Manhattan Beach could be back in the hands of its patrimonial heirs by the end of next month — 93 years after the original owners, who were Black, had the property taken from them via racially motivated eminent domain.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will vote next week to approve an agreement to formally return the land, which was once a seaside resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge, to the descendants of the original owners and then lease it back to them.
Returning the land to the Bruce family, supporters say, will be the nation’s first tangible act of reparations.
“This is the first time (giving land back to a Black family) has taken place in U.S. history,” Anthony Bruce, a great-great-grandson of the original owners, said on Thursday, June 23. “We hope to be responsible stewards with this inheritance.”
The supervisors will almost certainly OK the agreement on Tuesday, June 28. And after a 30-day closing period, Marcus and Derrick Bruce, great-grandsons of proprietors Willa and Charles Bruce, will finally inherit the 7,000 square-feet of beachfront property, valued at $20 million.
The county will transfer the land to the Bruces without any restrictions on its use.
Anthony Bruce, Derrick Bruce’s son, leads the Bruce Family LLC that will manage the property.
Anthony and his brother, Michael, will also share the inheritance equally with their father and uncle, said Duane Shepard, a Bruce descendant and spokesman for the family.
After the Bruces receive the deed, according to the agreement, they will lease the property back to the county for $413,000 annually for two years. After that, the family will have the option to sell the property to the county for the $20 million.
Both sides will pay closing costs, though the county will reimburse the Bruces $50,000, according to the agreement. That money must then be donated to a nonprofit legal services provider that is helping the Bruces with the transactions.
The Bruces will be responsible for all property taxes for the current fiscal year and beyond.
LA County currently operates its Lifeguard Training Station on the land. That use would continue during the lease, with the county paying all operation and maintenance costs, according to the agreement.
There’s no plan as of yet on what to do with the property after the lease ends, Antony Bruce said, as everyone is just coming together to see where they can go as a family.
Tuesday’s vote will be the capstone of more than a year of legislative maneuvering to return the land to the Bruces.
That arduous process began in April 2021 with the introduction of state Senate Bill 796, which removed deed restrictions that prevented the county from transferring the property. The county supervisors supported that bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in September.
The two parcels once housed a seaside resort owned by and operated for Black people as a recreational haven during the early part of the 20th century, at a time when African Americans lacked access to the coast.
But Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to take over the two parcels owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, as well as other properties. The reason behind the eminent domain effort, the historical record shows, was to push Black people out of Manhattan Beach.
The city still owns the land just east of the former Bruce’s Beach Lodge. That land sat vacant for decades before the city turned it into a park; eventually, the recreational area was renamed Bruce’s Beach Park.
The parcels the Bruces owned — bordered by 26th and 27th streets, and Manhattan Avenue and The Strand — became state property in 1948. The state gave the parcels to L.A. County in 1995.
The motion to complete the return of the Bruces’ land was co-authored by Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell.
Hahn, whose supervisory district included Manhattan Beach before redistricting, said in a statement this week that it was about time the Bruce descendants are able to rebuild the wealth that had been denied their family for generations.
“We will never be able to rectify the injustice that was inflicted upon the Bruce family,” Hahn said, “but this is a start, and it is the right thing to do.”
Mitchell — who now represents Manhattan Beach after the decennial redistricting process — also said in a statement that the land should never have been taken.
“Now, we are on the precipice of redemption and justice that is long overdue,” Mitchell said, giving credit to “a global coalition of activists who have fought for years to bring justice to the Bruce family.”
The battle to return the Bruce’s Beach parcels to the family began with activist Kavon Ward in June 2020, just days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Ward planned a picnic at Bruce’s Beach Park to celebrate Juneteenth, the anniversary of when the last group of enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
At the event, Ward also called attention to why the 2020 picnic venue, initially developed as a Black leisure site, was now a hilly, grassy public recreation area.
That event sparked a movement that brought forth the state legislation to remove restrictions on the Bruce’s Beach deed.
“I’m excited,” Ward said Thursday. “I’m full of gratitude that I’ve been used as a vessel to help make this happen.”
While Ward said she’s always known she was called to do something like this, she said she’d never imagined it would be this big.
“I’m still a little surprised,” Ward said, “because I’ve never imagined I’d be at the heart of such drastic justice and change in this country.”
And there’s more change to come, she said.
Ward’s national organization, Where is My Land, is working with at least five other California families who had their land taken. Where is My Land is trying to get that land back and/or obtain financial restitution for those families.
“We celebrate this victory,” Ward said, “but we prepare to keep fighting.
“Black land (being) pillaged is an epidemic that affected Black people across this country,” Ward added. “Not only has it been time for reparative justice, but it’s also time for people claiming that they stand for Black lives to stop talking about what needs to change and actually being about the action it takes to create that change.”
Although the heirs will be unrestricted on how they use the property, Ward said, they could be “stuck between a rock and a hard place” because Manhattan Beach has the power to change zoning laws for what kinds of properties can operate in its coastal area.
If the family decides to sell to the county, Ward said, she would like to see that $20 million allocated toward subsidized housing for Black entrepreneurs like Willa and Charles, and artists, activists and actors who moved to California to pursue their dreams and are now homeless because they are unable to afford rent.
“As a Black land-back movement, we have a social responsibility not to only get Black land back,” Ward said, “but to provide safe, secure and comfortable housing for other Black entrepreneurs who can’t fully live out their dreams.”
The heir-vetting process delayed the transfer, Shepard said, as more than 100 people falsely claimed to be direct Bruce descendants.
“It’s been a battle,” Shepard said. “I’m just happy, really relieved it finally has come to the point where the family is going to get their land back.”
Shepard had been researching his family’s genealogy since 1994, he said, and in 2017 found Willa and Charles’ connections to himself and other Bruce family members.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said, “but for it to happen so quickly since 2020, I never could have imagined.”
Anthony Bruce said on Thursday that he and his family were overwhelmed, yet thankful, that this is taking place in this day and age. The family also wants to live up to Willa and Charles Bruce’s legacy.
“The few descendants that are left alive,” he said, “will strive to make sure that (Willa and Charles’) work and success was not in vain.”
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Though it has been a long time coming, he added, it happened at the right time because when Floyd, a Black man, was murdered, a lot of people became aware and more concerned about African American rights in the country.
“Even though this property was sitting here for (so many) years,” Anthony Bruce said, “unfortunately it took the death of a human being to see that people are being mistreated, being treated unfairly and justice isn’t being served.”
The timing is not a coincidence, he said.
“My father took (my brother and I) when we were younger to California and we did see Bruce’s Beach,” Anthony Bruce said. “He told us that was our land and we’d have to fight to get it back.”
Other people might be able to look at their own family history, Anthony Bruce said, “and really think to themselves what happened in the past and how to set some of those things right.
“We’ve been fighting for a long time,” he added. “If your family’s out there trying to get something that belongs to it, don’t give up the fight, keep going.”