Ninety-eight years after California officials seized prime oceanfront land from a Black family that had built a thriving community there, a Los Angeles County commission voted Tuesday to return the property to the original owners’ family.
The descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, who purchased the land for $1,225 in 1912 and built it into a seaside resort for Black families, will retake ownership of Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach. The land had been taken from them in 1924 under the guise of eminent domain.
"For us as a family, this had a wonderful beginning. And then it turned into a tragic story for my family," Anthony Bruce, the great- great-grandson of the Bruces, told NBC News. "Back in the day, prejudice was rampant. And unfortunately my family was the victim of a hate crime and the prejudice that was around during those times.
"So, now that this is finally taking place, for us as a family, we are greatly relieved, and we are so thankful that this has made such an impact on our nation."
The resort included a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent on land that now houses the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Center. The family remained steadfast despite acts of vandalism of visitors’ vehicles and an attack by the Ku Klux Klan. When it was clear the Bruces would not give in, the city seized the property and condemned the surrounding areas, claiming it would build a park in the area.
It was left undeveloped for more than 30 years.
The agreement returns the land to Marcus and Derrick Bruce, Anthony Bruce's parents and the great-grandsons of Willa and Charles. They said they intend to lease the land back to L.A. County at $413,000 a year so the county lifeguard facilities at the site can continue operation. Other terms in the agreement also dictate that the family can sell the property back to the county for no more than $20 million, which likely will take place, Anthony Bruce said.
“I’m not sure if anything else needs to happen over there at Manhattan Beach, where it is extremely racially lopsided,” Bruce said. “The demographics there are affluent, Caucasian people. And so, for us to go over there and try to start mingling and getting involved is highly unlikely because of the things that have happened to my family and other Black families that have been there. I don’t feel like it’s a safe place for my family.”
The battle for the Bruces to reclaim the land began in April 2021, when Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn initiated the intricate process of setting up the transfer of property. Local advocacy groups, including Kavon Ward’s Where Is My Land and Justice for Bruce’s Beach, joined in and helped raise awareness of the seizure. California state Sen. Steven Bradford authored Bill 796, which gave Los Angeles County the legal authority to transfer the property to the descendants. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation in September that moved the transfer of ownership closer to Tuesday's final decision.
A change in state law was required to allow the county to transfer ownership. Additionally, county officials had to identify the Bruce family heirs and settle the various financial implications of transferring the property.
“To see how many people came together and rally to get this done and bringing this to the forefront of people’s minds ... we thank you so much for that,” Anthony Bruce said. “We’re just really excited that this is happening, and we’re just overjoyed and overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, honestly.”
Bradford chastised Manhattan Beach for failing to publicly apologize for the City Council’s actions in the 1920s.
“Let’s be clear,” Bradford said. “The county is not giving anything back to the Bruce family. We are returning what was stolen.”