Nearly 100 years after a Black family’s oceanfront property was seized by the government during racial segregation, Southern California officials have agreed to return the property to their living descendants in an effort to “right a wrong.”
The great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, who purchased the land for use as a Black beach resort in the early 1900s, will have the prime real estate, appraised at $21 million, returned to them following a unanimous vote Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
“It is never too late to right a wrong,” County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who helped lead efforts to return the Manhattan Beach land, said in a statement. “Bruce’s Beach was taken nearly a century ago, but it was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would, almost certainly, be millionaires today if they had been allowed to keep their beachfront property.”
The roughly 7,000-square-foot property gave Blacks access to the beach at a time when they were otherwise prevented and discouraged from having access to the shore. Willa Bruce paid $1,225 for the property, according to an interview she gave in 1912 that described that price as “high” compared to nearby lots.
“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it,” she said when faced with opposition from white locals who reportedly vowed to find a solution should the resort continue to operate.
Roughly 13 years later, in 1925, the land was seized by the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees under eminent domain with claims that it would be turned into a park. Hahn’s motion, co-authored with Supervisor Holly Mitchell, noted that “it is well documented that this move was a racially motivated attempt to drive out the successful Black business and its patrons.”
The property was condemned just five years later, and the resort demolished. The land was transferred to the state until 1995, when it was then transferred to the county, which used it for lifeguard operations.
A transfer agreement returns the property to the family’s two great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick Bruce. There’s a 24-month lease agreement in which the county will pay $413,000 annually for its continued use. It will also pay operation and maintenance costs. The agreement also includes the right for the county to purchase the land at a later date for $20 million.
“The Lease Agreement will allow the Bruce family to realize the generational wealth previously denied them, while allowing the County’s lifeguard operations to continue for the foreseeable future without interruption,” the motion states.
Anthony Bruce, a great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles, told the Los Angeles Times that losing the land all those years ago tore his family apart.
Willa and Charles Bruce ended up working as chefs for other business owners for the rest of their lives, and Anthony’s grandfather Bernard lived his life “extremely angry at the world” over his family’s mistreatment, he said.
“Many families across the United States have been forced away from their homes and lands,” he told the Times. “I hope that these monumental events encourage such families to keep trusting and believing that they will one day have what they deserve. We hope that our country no longer accepts prejudice as an acceptable behavior, and we need to stand united against it, because it has no place in our society today.”