Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Thursday allowing ownership of prime Southern California beachfront property to be transferred to heirs of a couple who built a resort for Black people in the early 1900s but were stripped of the land by local officials. With a half-dozen descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce present, Newsom apologized for how the land was taken from the Bruces before he set to signing the bill during a ceremony at the property and suggested the move could be the start of broader reparations.
The legislation unanimously approved by state lawmakers this month was necessary to allow the start of the complex legal process of transferring ownership of what was once known as Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach and has been owned by Los Angeles County.
The property along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first West Coast resort for Black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches. It included a lodge, cafe, dance hall, and dressing tents. White neighbors harassed the Bruces, and there was an attempt to burn down the resort. The Manhattan Beach City Council used eminent domain to take the land from the Bruces in the 1920s, purportedly for use as a park.
It says so much about Manhattan Beach that there’s only one local elected official here at the bill signing ceremony to return Bruce’s Beach to the Black family that it was stolen from by the city in 1929. pic.twitter.com/7oOxHJ11L7
— Erika D. Smith 🦅 (@Erika_D_Smith) September 30, 2021
The land lay unused for years, however, and was transferred to the state in 1948. In 1995, it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. It came with restrictions limiting the ability to sell or transfer the property, which could only be lifted through a new state law.
California's governor authorized the return of beachfront land taken from Black owners in 1924 to their descendants.
Willa and Charles Bruce built Bruce's Beach resort for Black people during segregation, but the city seized it after white neighbors and the KKK harassed them. pic.twitter.com/92J6L4BKJg
— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 30, 2021
This year, the City Council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to displace the Bruces and several other Black families. The county, meanwhile, has outlined steps needed to move forward with the transfer, including assessing the value of the parcels and trying to find a means to lessen the tax burden on the heirs.
Today’s the day! We’re excited to join @decolonizingwealth & @LiberatedCapital as a #Case4Reparations grantee partner! To @justiceforbrucesbeach, #Reparations is about advocating for other Black families through Justice for Bruce’s Beach, @whereismyland and beyond. pic.twitter.com/hlmODyQpWe
— Justice For Bruce’s Beach (@JusticeForBruc1) September 14, 2021
County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who led a government push to transfer the land, said the heirs would almost certainly be millionaires now if the property had not been taken. “The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back,” Hahn said.