‘Stolen’ million-dollar property returned to family after 100 years

The Associated Press
·3-min read

A prime beachfront property could be returned to a family 100 years after it was seized.

Los Angeles County in California said it plans to return 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 was purchased for A$1600, with properties in the area now worth up to about $26 million, CBS News reported.

They built a lodge, café, dance hall and dressing tents with bathing suits for rent. Initially it was known as Bruce’s Lodge.

It did not last long.

The Bruces and their customers were harassed by white neighbours and the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn it down. The Manhattan Beach City Council finally used eminent domain to take the land away from the Bruces in the 1920s, purportedly for use as a park.

Homes seen at Manhattan Beach, LA.
Properties at Manhattan Beach are now worth millions. Source: CBS News

Janice Hahn, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors said the Bruce family “had their California dream stolen from them”.

“And this was an injustice inflicted not just upon Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business,” she said.

“Bruce’s Beach became a place where Black families traveled from far and wide to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach.”

After lying unused for years, the land was transferred to the state of California in 1948 and in 1995 it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations and maintenance.

A photograph of Charles and Willa Bruce, is part of a memorial to Emmett Till, located in front of a commemorative plaque at Bruces Beach, a park located in Manhattan Beach.
A photograph of Charles and Willa Bruce near a commemorative plaque at Bruces Beach. Source: Getty Images

The last transfer came with restrictions that limit the ability to sell or transfer the property and can only be lifted through a new state law, Ms Hahn said.

State Senator Steven Bradford said that on Monday he will introduce legislation, SB 796, that would exempt the land from those restrictions.

“After so many years we will right this injustice,” he said.

If the law passes, the transfer to the descendants would have to be approved by the county’s five-member Board of Supervisors, said Liz Odendahl, Ms Hahn’s director of communications.

Manhattan Beach is now a tiny city of about 35,000 people on the south shore of Santa Monica Bay. 

Its picturesque pier juts into swells prized by surfers, and luxury residences have replaced many of the beach houses along an oceanfront walk called The Strand.

 According to Census data, its population is 78 per cent white and 0.5 per cent Black.

A home at Bruces Beach is pictured.
The Bruce family owned two parcels of land before they were seized. Source: NBC4

The current City Council this week formally acknowledged and condemned city leaders’ efforts in the early 20th century to displace the Bruces and several other Black families, but stopped short of formally apologising, Southern California News Group reported.

“We offer this Acknowledgement and Condemnation as a foundational act for Manhattan Beach’s next one hundred years,” a document approved by the council 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.”

A hill rising steeply behind the beachfront property has a beach parking lot and above that is an ocean-view city park that was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2006.

The lot and park were not part of the Bruces’ property and would not be part of a transfer to the family, Ms Odendahl said.

The value of the property has not been assessed, she said.

A return of the land could include an option for the Bruce descendants to lease the land back to the county for continued use.

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