State and Los Angeles County officials will soon undertake an effort that, if successful, would return a strip of prime Manhattan Beach real estate to the descendants of the original Black property owners, who missed a chance to build generational wealth when city leaders in the 1920s took the land from them.
Returning the land, officials and descendants of those owners say, would help rectify a historical wrong. In the early part of the 20th century, Willa and Charles Bruce opened the first seaside resort on the West Coast specifically for Black people, at a time when segregation often limited the access African Americans had to the surf. Bruce's Beach, as the resort was called, was successful and, over the years, grew in size.
But city leaders used eminent domain to strip the couple of the land -- as well as property belonging to several other Black families -- in a move that, the historical record shows, had racist motivations. The Manhattan Beach City Council formally acknowledged as much, and condemned those actions, this week.
"It's not often we can correct these atrocities in America," said state Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, who is part of the effort. "But this is an easy fix.
"This shows there's (the possibility)," he added in a Thursday interview, "for reparations and true redemption" in America.
Bradford, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, other state and local leaders, and Duane Shepard -- an extended descendant and representative for the Bruce family -- will formally announce the effort to return the land, currently owned by the county, at a press conference in Manhattan Beach Friday morning, April 9. That effort will include a state bill that will allow the county to transfer the property to the Bruce family. The county Board of Supervisors would then have to vote to do so, an initiative Hahn, whose Fourth District includes Manhattan Beach, is spearheading.
If the effort succeeds, officials say, it would be the first time in the nation that land has been returned to an African American family as a way to make amends for various discriminatory policies, including redlining, that prevented Black people from building wealth via property ownership.
Multiple questions remain, however, including whether that portion of the beach will ultimately remain open to the public, and whether the state-and-county initiative will go far enough for activists who have sought to have city and county officials make reparations to the Bruces since last summer, when the history of the resort received renewed attention amid a national reckoning on systemic racism in the wake of the George Floyd killing.
Manhattan Beach ultimately turned a larger portion of the land, still city-owned, into a park, which it eventually renamed Bruce's Beach. That park was the site of multiple protests last year, and the controversy over it led the City Council to form a task force to look into how to better honor the Bruces and educate the public about the racism they faced.
"We wanted the land restored, punitive damages for the police department terrorizing our family and restitution from lost revenue those enterprises would've had right now," Shepard said. "Giving back the land doesn't replace generational wealth."
The focus of the initiative to be announced Friday is 6,999 square feet of beachfront land, two blocks west of Bruce's Beach Park and adjacent to Manhattan Beach's The Strand.
But returning that land won't be simple.
While the city owned that land immediately after the Bruce family, it changed hands multiple times during the 20th century. The state took ownership in the 1950s, Bradford said. Then, in 1995, the state gave the two parcels that once belonged to the Bruces -- as well as other connected strips of beach -- to the county.
That transfer, however, came with a condition: The county could not sell the land and turn a profit.
So Bradford -- a member of the state's reparations task force that formed late last year -- will introduce a bill in the state Senate to give the county the authority to transfer the land to the Bruces' descendants. Bradford said his bill will require two-thirds support from the Senate and the Assembly, so it can be enacted more quickly.
Still, he said, the bill could be on the governor's desk for his signature by the beginning of summer.
"For the county to deed the property back to the Bruces," Bradford said, "we have to reverse some of those restrictions for them to do what they want to do."
And that's where Hahn and her fellow supervisors -- including District 2 representative Holly Mitchell, who will join the press conference -- come in.
Hahn, in a statement, said she plans to introduce a motion to kickstart the county's role in transferring the land on April 20. She said she's hopeful her colleagues will support the motion.
“The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them," Hahn said in a statement. "This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce, but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business.
"When I realized that the County now owned that stolen property," she added, "I wanted to do what I could to start righting this wrong. I strongly believe the right thing to do is for the County to return this property to the Bruce family."
The county does not currently have an estimate of the property's worth, said Liz Odendahl, a Hahn spokeswomen. But the county will assess the land during the transfer process.
But even then, it might be awhile before the worth is publicly known.
That's because appraisals and valuations in advance of the supervisors transferring property are exempt from disclosure because doing so could hurt the negotiations, according to LA County Counsel. The appraisal process is also complicated, Counsel said, because of the state restrictions that would make the appraised value less than once they are removed.
But beachfront property in the area is worth millions of dollars. Plots of land to the south of the two parcels the Bruce's owned -- which they bought for $1,225 in 1912 -- range, for example, from $4 million to $12 million, according to Zillow.
Also unknown is what will become of the property once the Bruce family regains control.
Shepard and the great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce, Anthony Bruce, began talking with county officials about the initiative at the start of the year. The county gave several options, Shepard said, including a lump sum payment, the county leasing the land from the Bruce family or the family to own it outright -- and do what they wish with it.
Hahn, for her part, doesn't want to place conditions on the transfer, Odendahl said. If the Bruce family decides it wants to lease the land to the county, then negotiations to do that would begin.
And the Bruce family has yet to decide on that, Shepard said.
"We haven't decided because there's more discussion to be had," he said. "We need to know what's going to happen with the state, (as it) needs to waive any jurisdiction so the county can give back the land free and clear, before making a final decision."
"We haven't really had time to really research those options just yet," Shepard said.
The family, Shepard added, needs to weigh the financial and social implications of operating land in an area where their ancestors went through bouts of terrorism, thievery and other criminal behavior from White residents and leadership -- all of which the historical record shows -- as well as a city that currently has so few Black residents. Black people comprise about half a percent of the Manhattan Beach population, according to 2019 U.S. census data.
"That's a concern for us," Shepard said, "after all we've been through for 96 years."
City officials, meanwhile, largely said they were pleased by the county's effort. But some also asked that they remain in the know.
"I ask the County to allow Manhattan Beach to retain a seat at the table as to how the Bruces’ former property is utilized going forward," Mayor Suzanne Hadley said in a Thursday email. "The City of Manhattan Beach and the adjacent property owners hope and expect that the land will continue to operate as a lifeguard station or a similarly low-impact function such as a passive park.”
Councilwoman Hildy Stern, though, said she wants the Bruce family members to find the solution that works best for them.
Stern was a co-chair of the recently dissolved Bruce's Beach Task Force, which recommended several initiatives to the City Council, many of which received approval, including two new plaques and an art installation memorializing owners of the former seaside resort. But the council stopped short of issuing a formal task force-recommended apology. Instead, the council OK'd an "acknowledgement and condemnation.'" Stern dissented -- because she favored an apology.
"I would like to see if there is something resolved with the county that the Bruce family members are comfortable with it," Stern said Thursday, "and that they find some resolution that is acceptable to them."
Hahn and Bradford, though, also framed their effort in broader terms: If successful, they said, their bid to return the land to the Bruce family could set an example that leads other Black families to get back land they lost in similar fashion -- not only in Los Angeles County, but across the nation.
Editor Lisa Jacobs contributed to this report.