Justice demands the return of Bruce’s Beach

By Steven Bradford and Janice Hahn
May 25, 2021

History is never just about the past; we carry our history with us. Injustices that happened years, decades, and centuries ago continue to shape the lives people lead today. And that means addressing the wrongs of the past is more than a symbolic gesture. It is a necessary part of building the just society we aspire to.

That is why it is important to seize the opportunity we have to become the first government in the nation to return a piece of land seized from Black property owners simply because of the color of their skin.

In 1912, a Black couple named Willa and Charles Bruce bought beachfront property in Manhattan Beach and created one of the state’s only beach resorts that welcomed and catered to Black beachgoers.  It became known as Bruce’s Beach and Black families traveled from far and wide to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach that so many of us take for granted.

But white neighbors resented the popularity of the resort.  They harassed the Black beachgoers. They slashed people’s tires. The KKK attempted to set the Bruce Lodge on fire and succeeded in burning down a local Black family’s home near the property.

When those scare tactics didn’t drive Black residents out of town, the city took matters into its own hands. Manhattan Beach officials declared eminent domain to take the Bruce family’s property in 1924, claiming that there was an urgent need to build a public park.  The Bruces fought in court to keep the property, but in 1929, the city seized it.

Of course, it wasn’t the first or last time the law was used to thwart Black families trying to make a life and pursue the American Dream. Redlining notably kept Black families from living in huge swaths of the region even as it boomed and was marketed broadly as a land of opportunity – for some.

Willa and Charles saw the opportunity they built with their own hands taken from them under the color of authority. Prohibited from reopening their resort anywhere in Manhattan Beach, they instead spent the rest of their lives working for others. The wealth they could have built for future generations instead was snatched for what the city Council said at the time was an urgent need for a public park – again, for some.

After Willa and Charles were pushed off, their land sat vacant and neglected for decades.  In 1948, the land was transferred to the State and in 1995, the State transferred the property to the County of Los Angeles.  It was not until 2006 that the city began to recognize the reality of this history when it renamed Bruce’s Beach after its rightful owners. This was a result of the work of the city’s first Black Councilman, Mitch Ward. More recently, grassroots organizers have advocated for restitution for the family. Today, the two parcels that Willa and Charles once owned are the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters.

Now, nearly a century after Willa and Charles Bruce had their property taken from them, there is an opportunity for justice. Last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to begin the process of returning the land to its rightful owners – the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

The county’s ability to right this wrong now depends on the State taking action. When the State transferred the land to the county, it included restrictions that it could not be transferred to private ownership.

Senate Bill 796, which is now before the Senate, frees the Bruce’s Beach property from those provisions so the county can – finally – return the land to the Bruce family. We are using the same levers of power that once perpetrated injustice to return what is owed. It’s more than just an important symbol to begin making amends for California’s often racist history: it is about righting a wrong that happened in our backyards.

Some might question whether it’s wise to return public land to address something that happened nearly 100 years ago – or even longer. But this land is public only because it was taken unjustly. The city, the state and the county held legal title to the land, but none ever held a moral right to it. The fact that California’s history is littered with similar injustices shouldn’t discourage us from doing what we know to be right simply because there are so many others we can’t fix.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and we can atone for it to set the future right. It is never too late to right a wrong. It begins with small steps that create footprints for others to follow. There is no better place to start than Bruce’s Beach.

State Sen. Steven Bradford and Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn represent the South Bay communities of Los Angeles County.