California returns beachfront property taken from Black couple in 1920s | California

Los Angeles county officials have returned ownership of prime California beachfront property to descendants of a Black couple who ran a resort for African Americans in the 1920s until the local government seized their land.

The LA board of supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the transfer of the parcels in area once known as Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach. The site, steps away from one of southern California’s most pristine beaches, is now a county lifeguard training headquarters and a parking lot, and the transfer allows the county to lease back the property with an option to buy it for millions of dollars.

The successful transfer, which was years in the making, is a victory in the fight for reparations in California and is a win for racial justice in a beach city that remains less than 1% Black today.

An aerial view of Bruce's Beach at sunset.
An aerial view of Bruce’s Beach at sunset. Photograph: Allen J Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The land was bought in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first west coast resort for Black people at a time when many beaches were segregated. The couple suffered racist harassment from white neighbors and the KKK, and in the 1920s, the Manhattan Beach city council took the land through eminent domain. The city claimed it needed the land for a park, but then left it vacant for decades and transferred it to the state of California in 1948.

The couple was left destitute by the land seizure, forced to move to the east side of LA and spent the rest of their lives working as cooks in other people’s diners.

The transfer to the Bruce family required state legislation and was recently completed when the county confirmed that Marcus and Derrick Bruce, great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, are the legal heirs.

“We can’t change the past and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago, but this is a start,” said supervisor Janice Hahn, who led the process.

Hahn said returning the property will allow the heirs “the opportunity to start rebuilding the generational wealth that was denied them for decades”.

Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach, California.
Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, California. Photograph: Dean Musgrove/AP

Anthony Bruce, a family spokesman, said in a statement that the return means the world to them but it is also bittersweet.

“My great-great-grandparents, Willa and Charles Bruce, sacrificed to open a business that gave Black people a place to gather and socialize, and Manhattan Beach took it from them because of the color of their skin,” he said. “It destroyed them financially. It destroyed their chance at the American Dream.”

The transfer includes an agreement for the property to be leased back to the county for 24 months, with an annual rent of $413,000 plus all operation and maintenance costs, and the county’s right to buy the land for up to $20m.

“This may be the first land return of its kind, but it cannot be the last,” Hahn said.

The transfer had faced some opposition from neighbors, including members of the Manhattan Beach city council who voted against a symbolic apology to the Bruce family last year. In recent years, Black surfers have also spoken out about experiencing racism in the predominantly white city.

Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard stands in front of a bench at Bruce's Beach.
Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard stands in front of a bench at Bruce’s Beach. Photograph: Damon Casarez/The Guardian

Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, another Bruce family member who has been fighting for the transfer for years, said on Wednesday that this was a “first step” in getting justice and that the family intended to seek restitution and punitive damages from the city of Manhattan Beach: “We’re elated that this has finally come to fruition – this is the start of trying to rebuild the generational wealth that they lost through illegal acts.”

The return of the land should be a model for the country, he added: “We now have the blueprint for how to get something like this done against a city and state or possibly the United States government for some of these atrocities that happened to our people. I hope young people are really paying attention. It is now time for us to stand up and speak out.”

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