In 1924, Charles and Willa Bruce were forced to sell their beachfront property owing to racial segregation. Today, their descendants stand to inherit it, estimated to be worth $75 million.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 13, 2021. It has since been updated.
Just under a hundred years ago, a Black couple in California was forced to surrender their beachfront resort property in Manhattan Beach, a town in the southern part of the state best known for its scenic expanse. At the time, the area was home to dozens of Black families, and the couple's lodge was filled with the energy and music of Black entertainers. Unfortunately, owners Charles and Willa Bruce were forcefully torn away from the property by city officials owing to strict racial segregation and harassment from white neighbors and the supremacist group Ku Klux Klan. Now, their descendants are likely to receive the property, Los Angeles County officials have stated. Working with lawmakers, the officials plan to return the property, estimated to be worth $75 million, CNN reports.
A Black family's beach property in California was taken during the Jim Crow era. Now, Los Angeles County officials say they are working with state lawmakers on legislation that would return the property — worth approximately $75 million — to the family. https://t.co/IgzIPU860r— CNN (@CNN) April 13, 2021
"The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them," stated county Supervisor Janice Hahn. "Generations of their descendants almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business." In 1924, city officials captured the property from the couple through eminent domain, paying them only a fraction of what they originally asked for. Five years after the owners left the property, they sadly passed away. The Bruces had purchased the property for $1,225 in 1912, renovating it to include a cafe and changing rooms. At the time, the area had become a haven for Black families, granting them a renewed sense of hope and unity.
That changed when white homeowners grew resentful of Black beachgoers and the popularity of the resort, a representative for the Bruce family shared. To ensure Black families would avoid the area, white supremacists and Klan members put up "no trespassing" signs and slashed tires. Klan members even attempted to set the Bruces' property on fire. According to a county official, they were successful in burning down a nearby home owned by a local Black family. It was when these scare tactics did not work that Manhattan Beach declared eminent domain in 1924. The couple was ultimately paid about $14,125 to give up the house.
After we first reported it was being considered, Supervisor Janice Hahn announces LA County has begun the process of returning the beachfront property known as #BrucesBeach back to the last living direct descendant of Willa and Charles Bruce. @NBCLA pic.twitter.com/a9ARDKY35w— Jonathan Gonzalez (@JonathanNBCLA) April 9, 2021
After the city gained ownership of the property in 1929, it was left completely vacant. At present, the property functions as a park with a lawn, parking lot, and lifeguard training facility. Notably, it no longer belongs to Manhattan Beach. Instead, Los Angeles County now owns it. The county gained ownership in 1995. While city officials acknowledged and condemned the incident, they did not offer an apology for what occurred. The City Council stated recently, "The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. The community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant, and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance, and exclusion. Today's residents are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago." Today, Black people comprise less than one percent of the population in the upscale area.
In July of 2018, 130 of the descendants and family members of Charles and Willa Bruce visited Bruce's Beach to commemorate the history and legacy of their family's beach resort. pic.twitter.com/TIKztrLFWM— Ma$on (@FirstGentleman) February 17, 2020
Although present residents cannot be blamed for what took place a century ago, they must recognize the systemic privilege they benefit from. As a result of losing their property in the early 1920s, the Bruces had to relocate to South Los Angeles where they were eventually employed as laborers. The couple suffered great "physical, mental, social, and emotional stress," family spokesperson Duane Shepard explained. Now, some residents of the area have expressed dissatisfaction with recent news of returning the property to descendants of the Bruces. At the country's news conference on Friday, one resident said with frustration, "I've been lucky enough to live in this beautiful spot for over 50 years. I've never been discriminated against by this community, but it hurts me that the people here are trying to spoil what we have here."
Bruce's Beach, CA.— Forbidden History (@ForbiddenHistry) July 26, 2020
Founded by Willa & Charles Bruce in 1912. They bought a Property and 3 Lots and started building.
Unfortunately, due to an attack by the KKK and Eminent Domain, the land was seized from the Bruce's.
It was renamed in 2007. pic.twitter.com/Kh9UhJSZUh
"We love it just as much as you do," responded Shepard. "After the family was railroaded out of town, they lived in Los Angeles destitute and so therefore, these people who did this to my family need to rectify it by any means, including apologize." In order to return the land to the Bruce family, the state will have to pass a law making the property exempt from restrictions that limit the county's ability to transfer the property with ease. The process could be made possible within the year, should Governor Gavin Newsom approve. Conclusively, this is Los Angeles County's opportunity to right a historical wrong. Shepard affirmed, "I am hopeful that the people in California will see the importance of trying to right this wrong. Black-owned properties experienced tremendous amounts of hatred, harassment, hostility and violence at the hand of the Ku Klux Klan, who cold-bloodedly threatened the Bruces and other families who dared to enjoy their property."