Black Family May Regain Title To $75 Million Property Taken During Jim Crow

When we explore our hometowns as kids, it's easy to get comfortable with our surroundings and see the parks we pass through and the fun places we visit as just neutral parts of any good town.

However, the reality is that at some point, any landmark in a city that didn't come to exist there naturally was the result of somebody's decision. And while those decisions are often based on the needs of the community or on someone's instincts for generating revenue, it's not always that simple.

Indeed, we can sometimes find that the familiar sights we once enjoyed uncritically can have much darker origins than we realized. And for one California community, such a reckoning has prompted efforts to right a 100-year-old injustice that are going all the way to the state's government.

For over a decade, the Bruce family owned two plots of land that they turned into a haven for Black beachgoers.

According to The Los Angeles Times, there was no place that Black Californians were allowed to enjoy a beach in San Diego and Orange County for much of the early 20th century due to segregation.

But that changed in 1912 when Willa Bruce bought the land in question for $1,225 and established a successful resort known as Bruce's Beach.

It featured a popular lodge, café, and dance hall while also opening the door for other Black families to buy land to build cottages by the sea.

However, this development angered some white supremacist neighbors in the area who apparently had some connections to the Ku Klux Klan.

As CNN reported, these neighbors and their Klan allies posted "no trespassing" signs and slashed people's tires to deter them from coming to Bruce's Beach.

When that failed, some KKK members went as far as trying to burn Bruce's lodge down and did succeed in torching one of the new homes built nearby.

But again, this did not stop the community from thriving.

But by 1924, it appeared that enough city officials felt the same way as these neighbors to disband the community by force.

As The Los Angeles Times reported, they did this by declaring the entire neighborhood condemned and seizing two dozen properties through eminent domain.

Although CNN reported that Bruce and her husband Charles were eventually compensated $14,125, this was a fraction of what her property was worth at the time. Both Bruces would die five years later.

Although the city justified this seizure as filling an urgent need for a park at the time, the land sat vacant and unused for decades.

The property was eventually transferred to Los Angeles County in 1995 and now consists of a park, a lawn, a parking lot, and a lifeguard training facility.

Following pressure from the advocacy group Justice for Bruce’s Beach and Duane Shepard Sr. — a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe who the Bruce family have chosen to represent them — the Manhattan Beach city council considered an official apology for its predecessors' actions.

As CNN reported, however, they stopped short of doing this and instead released the following statement intended to "acknowledge and condemn" what happened:

The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. The community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion. Today's residents are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago.

However, this isn't the only action underway to address the wrongs perpetuated against the Bruce family.

According to The Los Angeles Times, county supervisor Janice Hahn spearheaded an initiative to have this property returned to Willa and Charles Bruce's descendants.

As she said, "The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them. Generations of their descendants [...] almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business."

Due to restrictions on the county's ability to transfer property, such a return would require state legislation.

However, CNN reported that California state senators are introducing precisely that sort of bill this week that could see the transfer finalized by the end of the year if it passes and meets the approval of Governor Gavin Newsom.

Although some residents within Manhattan Beach have resisted this legislation, it's not expected to face much opposition with the state government.

Should the bill pass, the Bruce family will regain ownership of their ancestors' original plots, which now have an estimated value of $75 million.

According to CNN, the Bruce family are in talks with the county to work out possible options for the land.

Although it seems likely that they will lease it back to the county — who will pay rent and maintain the existing park and lifeguard training grounds if this option is taken — they're also considering accepting an outright payment for it instead.

There's also the possibility that the family could fully retain it and develop on the land, though this would require additional steps to get any plans approved by local officials.

But of course, the legislation has to actually pass first.

As Shepard said, "I am hopeful that the people in California will see the importance of trying to right this wrong."

h/t: The Los Angeles Times, CNN

Filed Under: