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California moves to return Bruce's Beach seized from Black couple

"I was prepared to fight for years if not decades," said Kavon Ward, who started a movement to return the land to the Bruce family.
Image: Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach
Bruce's Beach at sunset, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in March.Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers unanimously moved Thursday to allow the return of prime beachfront property to descendants of a Black couple who were stripped of their resort for African Americans amid racist harassment a century ago.

"I’m ecstatic," said Kavon Ward, who started a movement to return the land to the Bruce family. "I never would have fathomed that this would have happened so quickly. I was prepared to fight for years if not decades."

What was known as Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach was purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who created the first West Coast resort for Black people during an era when racial segregation barred them from many beaches.

The resort included a lodge, cafe, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent.

The family's vision had been to build a coastal oasis where Black families could swim and mingle without being targeted or harassed. Willa Bruce ran the popular cafe and entertainment offerings while her husband worked as a chef on a train dining car. They purchased the land for $1,225.

“Bruce’s Beach became a place where Black families traveled from far and wide to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in April when the county announced plans to return the property.

But the Ku Klux Klan tried to burn it down, and white neighbors harassed the couple and their customers. Bogus “10 minutes only” parking signs were posted and beachgoers often returned to find the air had been let out of their tires, according to a legislative analysis.

A plaque gives the history of Bruces Beach in in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on April 9, 2021.Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to seize the land in 1924, ostensibly for use as a park.

Instead, the property languished until it was transferred to the state in 1948, then transferred to Los Angeles County in 1995.

It will take the state law that legislators sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday to transfer the property to the couple’s descendants. The transfer would also have to be approved by county supervisors.

"They are setting precedent for policies to be changed, antiquated policies that are creating barriers for people to seek restitution," Ward said.

Democratic Sen. Steven Bradford said the bill will “finally do the right thing, to undo a wrong committed by the city of Manhattan Beach and aided by the state and the county."

It “represents economic and historic justice and is a model of what reparations can truly look like," he said.

Council members in Manhattan Beach, a predominantly white and upscale city of about 35,000 people on the south shore of Santa Monica Bay, formally condemned the property seizure in April.

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CORRECTION (Sept. 12, 2021, 7 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the person who started a movement to return the land. Her name is Kavon Ward, not Kevon.