Kavon Ward and Autumn Moore noticed a troubling trend over the past few weeks.
Since George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police on Memorial Day, a modern civil rights movement has risen, with daily demonstrations nationwide against systemic racism and police brutality, and heightened awareness about the Black lives lost and injured similarly before and since Floyd’s death.
But Ward and Moore, who are Black, noticed that when they and others would post about Black Lives Matter issues in the Facebook groups for South Bay moms, administrators would delete the posts and flag them as political. So, the two mothers created their own group: Anti-Racist Moms around the South Bay.
Their mission is to create a safe space for Black people, other people of color and allies to discuss and find solutions to end the cycle of racism, starting with their children. That’s something, said Ward, a Manhattan Beach resident, that has been hard to come by in her three years living in the South Bay.
Ward and Torrance resident Moore, along with friend Misty Castañeda, will hold their first event — a physically distanced picnic — in Manhattan Beach Friday afternoon, June 19, commemorating Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the end of slavery.
The picnic’s location also holds historical significance: Bruce’s Beach. Bruce’s began as a beach for the Black community — the first of its kind along the Pacific Ocean — in the early years of the 20th century. Its original owners, though, faced racism and oppression. Charles and Willa Bruce, and many others in the city’s tiny, budding Black community, were tactically forced to move out after the two created an African American-only beach area that drew more people who looked like them to the newly incorporated city.
Now, Ward and Moore want to recognize that history.
“It’s a way to reclaim this space even if it’s just symbolic,” Moore said, to make others aware. “My guess is a lot of people who live there don’t know the African American history of Bruce’s Beach.
The plan, she added, is to “sit at Bruce’s Beach, let others see that and ask why we’re there.”
The timing of Juneteenth aligned well with plans for the group’s inaugural event, Ward said, and holding the celebration at Bruce’s Beach was a no-brainer — given the tragic history of the land.
Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day the last enslaved African American people became free — when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform slaves the Civil War had ended, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Nearly 50 years after that national milestone, Willa and Charles Bruce moved to Manhattan Beach from New Mexico and Willa started the first Black woman-owned business in the city’s early days, according to “Skirts Across the Sand,” by Manhattan Beach historian Jan Dennis.
In 1912, the Bruces purchased a lot between 26th and 27th streets, on The Strand, from Henry Willard, part of an area set aside by landowner George Peck for African American buyers.
The couple, in 1915, started constructing a beach-side resort called Bruce’s Beach Lodge. In 1920, they bought another lot with a two-story building to add a dance hall and restaurant on what’s now Bruce’s Beach Park.
Bruce’s Beach was the first place on the Pacific Ocean where Black people could access the beach, Mitch Ward, a former Manhattan Beach mayor, said in an interview this week. The Bruces also rented out bathing suits, bicycles and beach toys for visitors, he said.
It was “a very high-end situation,” for Black people in the city, Mitch Ward said.
But it wasn’t long before the spot faced opposition.
The Ku Klux Klan, for example, was believed to be behind some harassment. And, according to a 2016 Southern California News Group article by local historian Sam Gnerre, mysterious fires would pop up now and then.
In 1924, the city revoked the Bruces’ property through eminent domain — a legal maneuver allowing the government to take private property for public use — to turn it into a park. The resort closed. But Black people continued to visit the beach — despite ongoing resistance from the much-larger white community. Multiple black people were even arrested, over a couple of occasions in 1927, for being at the beach. The resort itself was torn down that year.
The Bruces and three other families sued the city, arguing Manhattan Beach was trying to displace them. But by the time the lawsuit was settled, in 1929, the Bruces had left Manhattan Beach.
“The sad part, I think, was the city did not accept it,” Dennis said.
Manhattan Beach had a small, “very conservative” population during this time period, Dennis added.
So the land sat vacant for decades.
Then, in the 1950s, the city developed a park on the neglected land to prevent members of the Bruce family from trying to get it back. The city also changed its name more than once, dubbing the beach Bayview Terrace Park in 1962 and Parque Culiacan — after Manhattan Beach’s sister city in Mexico — in 1974.
It would take another three decades before the Bruce’s Beach moniker was restored — thanks to a man who made his own history in Manhattan Beach.
Mitch Ward, the first and only African American elected to office in Manhattan Beach, spearheaded the initiative to return the park to it’s original name in 2006.
It was “one of my proudest moments on council,” he said.
Patricia Bruce-Carter, a descendant of Charles and Willa, attended the 2007 rededication ceremony for Bruce’s Beach. She also organized a 2018 Bruce family reunion, during which the founders’ heirs — spread across six states — came together and, while on a charter bus tour of Los Angeles, stopped at the historical beach park.
“It was almost as if God came down and was on the grass with us,” Bruce-Carter said of the rededication.
Reclaiming the land
Bruce’s Beach is now a popular gathering spot for everyone, no matter their race. And while that is a good thing, Kavon Ward and Autumn Moore say, the Black history of the beach has been largely lost.
That’s why they, with their new mom group, want to take Bruce’s Beach back — at least symbolically — for the Black community it was made for.
“This picnic is not to be confrontational,” Moore said. “We’re just trying to create awareness about the history of these things that have been done to us — like the beach resort being taken away from its owners — and change hearts and minds to move toward a more fair and socially just society.”
Kavon Ward, for her part, said the event is about being visible — in a city that is overwhelmingly white.
“We just want to make our presence known on Juneteenth,” Ward, a web developer, said. “We are looking forward to holding this celebration in this historical spot in honor of and in solidarity with this family that has been treated so unjustly.”
Overt racism is not as prevalent today as it was in the 1920s. But some Black people — who make up less than 1% of Manhattan Beach’s population — say there are still instances that make them feel unwanted in the city.
A Black family’s home, for example, was set on fire in 2015. The crime was never solved. And despite many of their neighbors rallying to their side, the family has said it believes the fire was a racially motivated hate crime.
“I just know there is no other reason to target us,” the homeowner, Ronald Clinton, told the Southern California News Group at the time.
“We’ve been a part of this community for over 11 years and at this point are wondering if it’s time to go,” Malissia Clinton, Ronald’s wife, had written in an email to friends and news outlets after the incident.
Then there’s Moore and her family. Her husband, a Black man, has been stopped by police five times in his life — all of them during the one year he lived in Manhattan Beach. He then decided to move out of the city, Moore said.
Moore, a labor and employment attorney, took her family holiday photos last year at Bruce’s Beach. For her, she said, it was a personal symbol of reclamation for the generations before her who battled racial injustice.
Kavon Ward has also faced what she says was discrimination — of the implicit bias variety. While walking with her daughter in a stroller one day, Moore said, a white woman approached her and asked her what family she nannies for. In another instance, she was also told by a white man that she “probably doesn’t even live in Manhattan Beach” when he was using a room she had reserved in the library for a meeting.
As for Friday’s picnic, Ward and Moore haven’t widely promoted it. That’s because, Ward said, they don’t want to be attacked or seen as doing something wrong.
“We want you to see a bunch of Black faces on this property,” Ward said. “Because it’s ours.”
—Staff writer Michael Hixon contributed to this report.