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After California moves to return Bruce's Beach to Black family, a push to recover other seized land

"They were building community and spreading the wealth within the community and enhancing other Black people, and it was all stripped away," the founder of the advocacy group Where Is My Land said.

LOS ANGELES — With the flick of a pen Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom codified the return of prime beachfront property in Southern California to the descendants of a Black couple who were stripped of their land and driven out by the Ku Klux Klan nearly 100 years ago.

California lawmakers this month unanimously passed a law to allow the return of what was once a thriving coastal resort that catered to Black residents when racial segregation barred them from many beaches.

What is known as Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County was purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built a lodge, a cafe, a dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent on land that now houses the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Center.

An aerial view of Bruce's Beach at sunset, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on March 24, 2021.Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Invoking eminent domain, Manhattan Beach officials seized the land from the Bruces in 1924.

"This country always likes to say: 'You can make it. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'" said Kavon Ward, who founded an advocacy organization called Justice for Bruce's Beach last year. "These people were doing that, and they were building community and spreading the wealth within the community and enhancing other Black people, and it was all stripped away."

It was through her work with Bruce's Beach that Ward founded a new organization, Where Is My Land, dedicated to helping other Black families with similar stories reclaim what once belonged to them.

Among its objectives, Where Is My Land seeks to secure restitution for lost wealth and enterprise.

"For me, it was more than just land being taken from Black people," Ward said. "It was land taken away from Black entrepreneurs. It was business. It was community."

Where Is My Land is working with the family of Winston Willis, a Black real estate developer who lost his property in Cleveland in a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

"These are not people looking for reparations for being enslaved," Ward said. "These are people that, despite their ancestors' being enslaved, picked themselves up, created and built their own wealth, and their opportunity to pass on that wealth was taken away from them."

Willis, 81, who lives in a nursing home, built a thriving entertainment and real estate empire near the intersection of 105th Street and Euclid Avenue in the shadow of the Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned medical center that perfected heart bypass surgery in 1968.

The same year, Willis won $500,000 gambling, said his sister Aundra Willis Carrasco. He used the money to expand his growing empire, which included the Jazz Temple, a legendary music venue that hosted titans like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

Described by a local newspaper in 1978 as a "fiery talker," Willis went on to open more than two dozen businesses along Euclid Avenue when much of the country was still reeling from segregation. He operated movie theaters, restaurants, bookstores and several X-rated businesses, earning him the dubious reputation as Cleveland's "pornography king."

"Pornography brings whites and blacks together," he told the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer in 1971. "What other reason would bring whites here?"

The area surrounding Willis' former kingdom is now home to two very disparate realities. The Cleveland Clinic and University Circle, recently voted by USA Today as the top arts district in the country, both attract big money from philanthropic institutions and top donors. Yet even though it houses elite institutions, Cleveland became the "poorest big city in America" in 2019, according to census data. The median household income is about $31,000, and nearly 33 percent of residents experience poverty.

NBC News has reached out to the Cleveland Clinic for comment.

At the height of Willis' success, Cleveland had already started to splinter into two cities, said Mark Souther, a professor of history at Cleveland State University. Following an uprising in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Hough, Willis moved in on property that had been abandoned by its previous owners. He soon became one of the wealthiest Black entrepreneurs and one of the largest Black employers in the region, posing a threat to the established order.

"Although whites moved to the suburbs, they still continued to want to have their cake and eat it, too," Souther said. "He was provocative, to say the least."

As Willis’ fortune increased, so did the harassment, his sister said. He received death threats and kidnapping threats against his children, and there were “several attempts on his life,” according to Carrasco. Menacing phone calls and racial slurs were just the beginning. Two years after the Jazz Temple opened, it was destroyed in a bombing.

His later businesses were plagued by unscheduled inspections, raids and accusations of fraud and housing violations, Carrasco said. Despite the harassment, Willis persisted in expanding his empire.

He was eventually reduced to “abject poverty” after his two dozen businesses were seized amid allegations of tax violations and debts of thousands of dollars on utility bills. He repeatedly fought the claims, waging court battle after court battle and ultimately losing.

He was arrested in 1982 for writing a bad check and spent 10 days in solitary confinement, Carrasco said. While he was in jail, Willis' empire crumbled. He lost control of his final Cleveland property in 2000.

"'Fearless' is the main word I use in describing him," Carrasco said. "He was not the first Black person to have his property stolen. He was the first Black person to fight back."

Carrasco has been writing the story of her brother for more than 30 years. She has spent much of that time closely monitoring Willis' legal battles and poring over news clippings, court documents and other family records to tell the bigger picture of what happened to his once-booming empire.

It wasn't until George Floyd's death in May 2020 and the subsequent racial reckoning that swept the country, including a movement to return Bruce's Beach, that Carrasco found an ally in Ward. Together, they hope to honor Willis' legacy and raise awareness about land they say was unfairly taken.

"I really don't care about the financial aspect," Carrasco said. "I want to expose what these people have done."