The State of California is finally doing something right for a change. The government has authorized the return of property to the descendants of a black couple from whom it stole.
On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796 acknowledging that the shorefront property was seized by the state’s government under unlawful pretenses and that this act was racially motivated. The legislation reads:
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.
Bruce's Beach, the beachfront property that was stolen from a Black couple, has been returned after 100 years. California Governor Gavin Newsom signs the bill to return the property to the descendants. BNC correspondent @waltermorris had the details. pic.twitter.com/jcEabTdADw
— BNC (@BNCNews) October 1, 2021
The bill passed unanimously in California’s legislature and “includes an urgency clause that allows Los Angeles County, which currently owns the property, to immediately begin the process of transferring the land,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The story behind the property, which is referred to as Bruce’s Beach, is a rather sordid one.
The Times explained:
In 1912, Willa Bruce purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets. While her husband, Charles, worked as a dining-car chef on the train running between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, Willa ran a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall — providing Black families a way to enjoy a weekend on the coast.
Shortly after the Bruces purchased the property, more black families moved to the area and built their own residences near the ocean, creating their own community. Author and historian Alison Rose Jefferson told the Times that “They were pioneers. They came to California, bought property, enjoyed the beach, made money.”
NBC News noted that it was “the first West Coast resort for Black people during an era when racial segregation barred them from many beaches.”
Unfortunately, it did not take long before bigots took notice of the community’s success. The Times noted:
But white neighbors resented Bruce’s growing popularity. Tires were slashed. The Ku Klux Klan purportedly set fire to a mattress under the main deck and torched a Black-owned home nearby. Fake “10 minutes only” parking signs were posted to deter Black out-of-town folk. To reach the ocean, visitors had to walk an extra half mile around property owned by Peck, who had lined it with security and “No Trespassing” signs.
Nevertheless, the Bruces and fellow black residents stood their ground, refusing to be driven out of town. However, the government had another idea: It condemned the area in 1924 and seized “more than two dozen properties through eminent domain,” according to the Times.
The reason the government gave for this action was that apparently, they had an urgent need to erect a public park.
The Bruces and three other families fought back through the legal system. They filed lawsuits accusing the government of being motivated by racism. They asked for $120,000 in compensation. But when the litigation concluded, they received only $14,500.
To amplify the damage, the city’s government made sure the Bruces were not able to relocate their business to another part of town. They moved out of the area and worked as chefs for other restaurants for the rest of their lives.
To add further insult to injury, the government demolished the resort and allowed the land to remain vacant until the 1950s when city officials became concerned that family members might have standing to sue because it was not being used for the official purpose for which it had been seized. It would be more proof that the seizure was motivated by racism.
This prompted the decision to build City Park on the land. In 2006, the City Council voted to change the name to Bruce’s Beach after an appeal from Councilman Mitch Ward, the city’s first black elected official.
Anthony Bruce, a descendant of Charles and Willa Bruce, told the Times that the issue “continues to tear his family apart.” During a 2007 interview, his grandfather Bernard asked:
How would you feel if your family owned the Waldorf and they took it away from you?
Now, it appears California’s government is trying to make amends for the evil it perpetrated almost a century ago. Returning Bruce’s Beach to the family might not make up for the economic damage it caused them, but it is still the right thing to do.
This story also brings up questions about other black families who were deprived of generational wealth due to racist policies. The reparations issue is a hotly debated topic. However, in the case of the Bruces’, the government attempting to right a wrong it committed might be an action on which most could agree.