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People enjoy Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, the site of a Juneteenth picnic to commemorate the emancipation of African Americans in 1865, on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

Manhattan Beach has officially acknowledged and condemned efforts by the city's early 20th century leaders to displace several Black families, including the original owners of Bruce's Beach, for reasons the historical record has shown to be racist — but stopped short of a formal apology.

The City Council this week approved an "acknowledgement and condemnation" of those actions. In the late 1920s, Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to take over Black-owned properties. One of those properties was owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, who created the first seaside resort for Black people on the West Coast, during a time when segregation prevented African Americans from enjoying the beach.

The other Black owners were George and Ethel Prioleau, Elizabeth Patterson, Mary R. Sanders, and Milton and Anna Johnson.

"We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years," the document says, "and the actions we will take together, to the best of our abilities, in deeds and in words, to reject prejudice and hate and promote respect and inclusion."

That document stems from the work of the now-dissolved Bruce's Beach Task Force, which formed last year in the wake of renewed interest in the former seaside resort's history amid a national reckoning on systemic racism. The task force concluded last month, when it presented several recommendations to the City Council. The council OK'd many of those, including the creation of two plaques and an interactive art installation honoring Bruce's Beach. The council also approved keeping a tab on Manhattan Beach’s website detailing the history of how the town’s leaders in the early 20th century forced the Bruce family out, costing them the opportunity to use their resort to build generational wealth.

But the panel delayed until this week a decision on perhaps the most seminal recommendation: A formal apology.

The council on Tuesday, April 6, weighed four versions. Three of the versions — the original task force one, and alternatives from Council members Steve Napolitano and Hildy Stern — used the word "apology."

The fourth, by Councilmember Joe Franklin, did not.

The council approved Franklin's version with minor revisions 4 to 1, with Stern dissenting.

Franklin, at the council meeting, said it's wrong for Manhattan Beach to apologize for something no one still living in the city is responsible for.

"We can't paint the entire city of that time or today with a broad brush stroke of racism," Franklin said. "Yes, there were bad, immoral acts by residents and some on council, (but) there were (likely) some residents then who were complacent and some who weren't OK with it. No resident in Manhattan Beach now is responsible for the racist actions."

Franklin's version, underscoring his reason for not issuing a formal apology, contrasted the racist actions of the past with what the councilman described as a more inclusive present.

"The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago," Franklin's acknowledgement reads. "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," Franklin's version adds, "are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago."

But Stern blasted Franklin's version, even questioning its sincerity — saying the condemnation's use of "reportedly" and "ostensibly" in describing the history undermines confidence in the report the task force has presented to the council.

"This is incredibly disturbing to see how this has unfolded," Stern, a member of the task force, said, "and the lack of intention in the acknowledgment."

Franklin stood by his version, noting the council still hasn't voted to accept the task force's history report. The council, to that end, did agree members who voted for the apology and condemnation could ask to revisit it and ask for revisions later.

Another criticism of apologizing was that it could open the city up to a lawsuit, something Mayor Suzanne Hadley and some residents said was a concern.

"I get the power of an apology," Hadley said. "The difference is that word in California law comes with a lot of baggage — that word is a club we could be handing to people to beat us with."

But Napolitano, who ultimately voted for Franklin's version after initially supporting one of the other three, disagreed with the mayor. If the city gets sued, he said, it'll happen regardless of whether officials apologize. The Bruce family descendants, for their part, have not suggested — publicly, at least — that they plan to sue.

And Napolitano said, that's not the point of saying "sorry."

"The point is Bruce's Beach has been a crack in our community for the past 100 years," Napolitano said. "And an apology is the best way to strengthen that foundation for the next 100 years.

"I'm not opposed to an acknowledgement," he added. "But it's basically a half step; a non-apology apology. If we're not ready to say sorry today, a future council will."

The council, meanwhile, also gave the history advisory board, formerly the task force's history subcommittee, another month to research and put together wording for the new plaques.

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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