Like millions of others before and after them, Willa and Charles Bruce came to California with a dream.
After moving west from New Mexico with their young son, the couple bought a parcel of land in 1912 on a sparsely populated strip of coastline. It was just south of the then-burgeoning city of Los Angeles, on what would later be known as Manhattan Beach.
There, the couple opened a small beachside resort called Bruce Beach Front, where guests could do what so many others were doing up and down the Golden Coast. They swam and ate. They listened to music and danced. They relaxed and took in the sweeping Pacific Ocean views.
Bruce’s Beach was remarkable not for what went on there—but because of who was allowed to enjoy it. Willa and Charles Bruce, a Black family just one generation removed from slavery, offered a rare recreational enclave for other Black families who, in the Jim Crow era of rampant and violent racism, were not welcome at most of the state’s beaches.
Even so, within a week of opening their doors, white neighbors began harassing the Bruces and their patrons. “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Willa said in a 1912 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”
Willa did just that, despite the ongoing harassment, and Bruce’s Beach thrived for more than a decade.
Then in 1924, bending to the racist outcry of aggrieved white residents, Manhattan Beach city officials condemned 30 lots, which included Bruce’s Beach and four other lots owned by Black families, seizing them under the legal guise of eminent domain. The city claimed it needed to turn the land into a public park, then left it undeveloped for decades. The family sought legal recourse but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, they received just $14,500 from the city (equivalent to about $224,603 today) and left town.
Now, nearly a century later, their descendants have gotten that land back. In September, the state passed SB 796, which authorized Los Angeles County to legally return the property to its rightful owners, the Bruce family, who plan to rent the lifeguard training center that now sits on the land back to the county. The victory was the culmination of a concerted effort by both the family and allied advocates. In an interview with the Guardian, Willa and Charles’s great-great-grandson, Anthony, called the transfer “a reckoning that has been long overdue.” For other Black Americans, their story has also sparked a new push for justice and restitution.
The Fight for Bruce’s Beach
Kavon Ward grew up in Harlem but had lived in Manhattan Beach for years. As a Black resident, she was angry when she found out that “Black entrepreneurs were essentially cofounders of Manhattan Beach,” and that she’d never heard about it.
“Had they not been removed from their land, Manhattan Beach may have been a predominantly Black community,” Ward says. Today, Black residents make up less than 1 percent of Manhattan Beach’s population of about 35,000, which remains largely white and, like much of California’s coastline, exceedingly wealthy.
After realizing that, she wanted to do something.
In celebration of Juneteenth in 2020, Ward and other Black mothers organized a picnic at Bruce’s Beach, which had since been turned into a publicly owned lifeguard training area. Some of the Bruces attended, as well as members of the press.
Advocates—including descendants of the Bruce family and former mayor Mitch Ward, the first African American elected official in Manhattan Beach's history—had helped rename the beach back to Bruce’s Beach in 2007 and erected a plaque, but the plaque’s accounting of events remained whitewashed and failed to tell the story of the city’s wrongdoing. To Kavon Ward and others, these efforts seemed like a poor stand-in for real restitution.
At the picnic, Ward was asked by a reporter whether she wanted the plaque changed. “I said, ‘Yeah, I want to see the plaque changed, but I also want to see policy changed that would give the land back to the family,’” Ward recalls. “Every action afterward was focused on that.”
With her own roots in advocacy work, Ward cofounded a group called Anti-Racist Movements Around the South Bay, through which she began working with the Bruce family. “We established ourselves after the murder of George Floyd as a safe space for Black women, and specifically for Black mothers, to grieve,” Ward says. She later left that group and founded the more targeted organization, Justice for Bruce’s Beach.
The activists launched protests, petitions, and marches, hoping to teach Manhattan Beach residents about the history of their city. By fall of 2020, the city had created a task force meant to study the issue and make recommendations. “We did what was necessary to make sure that the powers that be heard us and the powers that were going to create the policies heard us,” Ward says.
But their audience was not always receptive. When the task force made its recommendations, which included a formal apology to the Bruce family, the members of the Manhattan Beach City Council essentially refused. An anonymous group of Manhattan Beach residents even took out an ad in the local paper, calling the task force’s efforts a race-fueled power grab. “It’s one thing to not support, but it’s another thing to use your time and energy to stop it from happening—and that’s what happened in the city of Manhattan Beach,” Ward says.
The task force did produce a 2021 report that detailed the history of the beach and its condemnation. Its digging also revealed a critical detail: The land was actually under control of the county, not the city.
So Ward and her allies gained a new target for their advocacy. They petitioned the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, and one of its members, Janice Hahn, soon took up their cause, reaching out to State Senator Steven Bradford about sponsoring a bill that would transfer the land back to the Bruce family descendants. (Legal restrictions put in place when the land was handed over to the county in 1995 made these state-level permissions necessary.)
In September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796 into law. “This new law is one important step toward righting historical wrongs and restoring access to nature for all Californians,” noted NRDC senior attorney Damon Nagami, who was an early supporter of the bill.
The Long Shadow of Eminent Domain
Though the near-term fight has been won, the victory still can’t account for everything that was lost—and remains emblematic of the larger and continuing battle against racist land and housing policies.
While the present-day value of Bruce’s Beach is currently being assessed, the number is no doubt in the millions—and even that figure can’t account for the cumulative, generational wealth stolen from the family.
“The property that Willa and Charles Bruce owned is prime beachfront property,” Hahn says. “If they had been able to keep their property and their successful business, you can imagine their family being just as wealthy and powerful as families like the Hiltons.”
To this day, eminent domain remains legal. Governments can seize property and demolish homes to build parks, highways, and even commercial centers for “public use,” sometimes destroying and splitting apart communities in the process.
Though robust demographic data on eminent domain remains relatively scarce, one study found that, between 1949 and 1973, one million people were displaced in the United States from “public use” projects, and two-thirds of those people were Black, about five times what should be expected given their population. A more recent 2009 study found that the disproportionate rates of eminent domain displacement for residents of color have only continued. “They’re not doing this in predominantly white communities,” Ward says. “They’re doing it in Black communities.”
This is why, after leading the successful Bruce’s Beach campaign, Ward cofounded Where Is My Land, a national advocacy group that works to reclaim stolen land for Black families. The organization is already working with at least 200 families across the country. When these clients saw success at Bruce’s Beach, Ward says they found hope.
“We have folks out there fighting, who’ve been fighting in the legal system to get land back, who have significant evidence to show they were bamboozled out of their property—and still they had no remedy,” she says. “I think the time for remedy is now.”
But even if all the land was restored, Ward knows that the cumulative loss of opportunity for Black families is one that can’t ever be fully calculated, just like the losses by the Bruce family can never be fully repaid.
“Land theft is not just land theft. It’s theft of opportunities for Black folks. It’s theft of dreams. It’s theft of being able to buy more land, to start businesses, to send kids to college,” Ward says. “So it’s not just land taken. It’s community taken. It’s culture taken. It’s so much.”
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