Reclaiming a Legacy: Bruce’s Beach

by Chronicles Editor
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Southern California is known for its beautiful beaches…and one plot of land was recently reclaimed by the Black family it was once stolen from.  

On a recent trip to Cali, I was so proud and honored to visit Bruce’s Beach, a stretch of Manhattan Beach owned by Charles and Willa Bruce, an entrepreneurial Black couple.  They purchased the land for $1,225 in 1912 from a wealthy land developer, independent in his views at the time as a white man who had turned his back on segregation by offering up land for sale to African Americans.  The Bruces built a resort that was popular among Black beachgoers, who frequented the resort’s hotel, café and dancehall with fervor.  But the white residents in surrounding areas and the Ku Klux Klan weren’t so happy with the resort’s success and the revelry of Black guests.  They did everything they could to drive the Bruces out, even to the extent of trying to burn the resort down. 

In 1924, the City of Manhattan Beach took the Bruces’ land by eminent domain, a power that the government has to seize land for purposes of public use, in this case, a public park.  In return, the couple received a little over $14,000 in compensation, an amount significantly less than they asked for, and only a smidgeon of what the land was worth at the time.  Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no park was ever erected at the location.  The Bruces’ resort was torn down, and the local government passed laws to prohibit the Bruces from reopening their business in other parts of the area.  The land was transferred to the State of California in the 1940’s and later to Los Angeles County.  And sat empty.  

Charles and Willa Bruce – photo taped to plaque on location

Fast forward to modern day…the story of the Bruce’s Beach seizure became center-of-attention during discussions of reparations for people of color in California.  In late September of this year, the Governor of California signed a bill that allowed the return of the land to the Bruce family…the land that Charles and Willa Bruce purchased so many years ago.  While official transfer details are still being ironed out, the fact remains that the Bruce family is reclaiming their legacy, along with an official apology from the State of California.  Bruce’s Beach is surrounded by homes valued at upwards of $7 million and the land itself is said to hold a current value of $75 million.   

Commemorative Plaque

 

This is but one of a million stories of African Americans being driven from the land they owned and earned a living on over the course of the century.  There are stories we know about, like Rosewood and Tulsa and others, but there are many hidden stories as well.  In my family, my maternal ancestors who were rooted in Chantilly, Virginia owned land where Dulles Airport now sits, but no one had or has documents to prove it, nor what happened to it.  It was also likely seized by eminent domain when the airport was built, or maybe it was seized in some other manner years before. 

Many African Americans have no recourse in reclaiming what once belonged to them, mostly due to lack of land ownership documentation.  Other people of color lost their land when unable to pass down the rights to their “40 acres and a mule” to their descendants due to lack of access to legal representation to construct a will.  Financial lack and inability to pay property taxes, etc.  also resulted in loss of land ownership.  So many stories of loss…

 

Visiting Bruce’s Beach was a moving experience.  The beautiful park on the land that  once held a thriving Black bed and breakfast is nestled among multi million dollar homes on a hill that overlooks the ocean.  A commemorative plaque stands in remembrance of the rich history of the Bruces and their land.  The park’s benches are a good spot to sit and ponder the land’s history, or to revel in God’s artistic scenery.  A couple threw a Frisbee back and forth, children were playing and another couple enjoyed a picnic lunch.  The green grass, the trees and the not-too-distant sound of the ocean created pure serenity.  With eyes closed, my soul stirred with a feeling of peacefulness in this place where for a moment the dark past that created so much pain could be forgotten.  As a gentle breeze swept past my face, I imagined Charles and Willa Bruce; their spirits finally resting peacefully in the triumph of reclamation.

(Dean Musgrove/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

I encourage you to Google Bruce’s Beach to learn more about this wonderful piece of land and the incredible story of the Bruces and their ancestors.  Perhaps you have a “land story” in your family to look into or discuss.  Tell me about it in the comments!

If your travels ever bring you to Southern California, be sure to head over to Manhattan Beach and pay Bruce’s Beach a visit.  It is a beautiful monument to the Bruces, who were pioneers of their time.  

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