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Bruce family gets deed back to California beach land stolen from Black entrepreneurs in 1920s

It was a morning of Black joy.

And it was a day, said state Sen. Steven Bradford, that was long overdue — and underscored the social justice work that remains.

The Bruce family formally received the deed to two parcels of seaside land in Manhattan Beach on Wednesday, July 20, more than 90 years after their descendants and the original owners, who were Black, had the land taken from them for racially motivated reasons.

Dean Logan, Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder, handed the deed to Bruce family members during a ceremony near Highland Avenue and 26th Street, three weeks after the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to return the property to them — and more than a year after the legislative maneuvering to do so began.

The great-grandson and great-great grandsons of original owners Willa and Charles Bruce — Derrick, Anthony and Michael Bruce, respectively — accepted the deed; Marcus Bruce, Derrick Bruce’s brother, did not attend.

The handover marked what public officials and the Bruce family have called the nation’s first apparent act of property-based reparations.

“It’s a real, concrete step toward change for the future,” Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard, a distant Bruce descendant and family spokesman, said in a Tuesday interview.  “This is the example that no matter what they say, you can do it if you try.”

The land once housed Bruce’s Beach Lodge, a seaside resort owned by and operated for Black people as a recreational haven during the early 20th century, a time when African Americans lacked access to the coast.

But Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to repossess the land owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, along with other nearby properties. The city’s eminent domain effort in the late 1920s, historical records show, was motivated by a desire to force Black people out of Manhattan Beach.

In 1948, the city handed the property — bordered by 26th and 27th streets, Manhattan Avenue and The Strand — and other beachfront parcels to the state. California, in turn, gave the land to LA County in 1995 — on the condition officials didn’t transfer control to anyone else.

That proved to be the first hurdle when the legislative effort to return the land to the Bruce family began in April 2021.

Bradford, D-Gardena, kicked off that effort by introducing state Senate Bill 796, which removed the deed restrictions that prevented the county from transferring the property back to the Bruces. The county supervisors supported that bill, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in September.

The work then moved to the county.

A complex process — which included determining the property’s true heirs, how much the property is worth and what should become of the county lifeguard station on the land — ultimately concluded with the Board of Supervisors voting to officially return the parcels on June 28.

The Bruces will lease the property back to the county for $413,000 annually for two years, according to the agreement the supervisors OK’d last month. At the end of the lease, the heirs can sell the land to the county for $20 million, if they so choose.

Americans have received compensation for historical injustices before, the New York Times wrote in a June 19, 2019, article, including Japanese Americans interned during World War II; survivors of police abuses in Chicago; victims of forced sterilization; and Black residents of a Florida town that was burned by a murderous White mob.

But public officials, the Bruce family and other supporters of the county effort have said returning the two parcels in Manhattan Beach is the first known case of reparations in the form of property.

“Today, we’re sending a message to every government in this nation that faces this challenge,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who spearheaded the county effort to return Bruce’s Beach to the family. “This work is no longer unprecedented; we’ve set the precedent in the pursuit of justice regaining stolen land for first time, but it will not be the last.”

A joyous day

Wednesday’s ceremony was a celebration, one spotlighted by Black music and iconography — but also tinged with a bittersweetness over the injustices of the past and the work that remains.

It opened with the Inner City Youth Orchestra performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to the standing-room-only crowd and ended with the orchestra’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Dancers from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy performed to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

During the event, artist Shelley Bruce completed a painting based on Willa and Charles Bruce’s wedding photo, but with local activist Kavon Ward sitting in the bottom right corner looking toward the couple. Ghanaian Sankofa symbols line the bottom of the painting, which Shelley Bruce said represents how Ward, in June 2020, helped tell the Bruce family’s story during a Juneteenth event, catapulting the movement to return their land into the public sphere.

“Unfortunately, this will not reverse an injustice that took place,” Bradford said during Wednesday’s event, “but it represents a bold step in the right direction.”

This step will also help the Bruce family begin to build the generational wealth that they were deprived of when their ancestors’ dreams were cut short, he added.

But, Bradford said, it’s still not everything the family deserves. And returning the land is not reparations, he said.

“This is returning property that was rightfully owned by a family,” Bradford, who is Black, said. “Reparations is what has been promised, what has still been denied and what is owed to the descendants of slaves.”

Shepard agreed.

“There are still some steps to justice that have to be taken,” Shepard said. “The people still benefiting from what was done to our family are still here (and) should be obligated to pay restitution. All we got is the land back; the wealth that was lost hasn’t been replaced. It’s a bittersweet moment for us.”

Property ownership wasn’t new to this family, Derrick Bruce said in a Tuesday interview. Rather, Manhattan Beach’s use of eminent domain in the early part of the 20th century ultimately put the Bruces’ legacy of success on hold for nearly a century.

The first known member of the family to come to America, Derrick Bruce said, was a man named Charles Bruce — an ancestor of Willa Bruce’s husband — who came here from Antigua in the 1700s. His son, Aaron Bruce, became a property owner in the 1800s, buying land from White neighbors, Derrick Bruce said.

If the Bruce family hadn’t been stopped, he added, they would’ve been extremely successful.

“They had generational wealth up until the time they came to Manhattan Beach,” Derrick Bruce said. “My family had always been involved in real estate, and everything stopped in Manhattan Beach when they lost the property; my father’s side weren’t slaves, they were entrepreneurs, so it was a devastating blow.”

Derrick and Marcus Bruce’s father, Bernard Bruce, told everyone he could about his family’s history. He detailed how his grandparents were disenfranchised, Derrick Bruce said, including the ways in which White neighbors, including city leadership, used terror and other tactics to deter Black people from visiting the beach or moving to the city.

“We were an obstacle in a lot of ways,” Derrick Bruce said “They felt threatened by people of color being in the area.”

“It’s a tragic story we have to live with,” he added.

Now, they’ve got a piece of that stolen opportunity back.

Moving forward, righting past wrongs

Derrick Bruce, a retiring Las Vegas tour guide, said he’ll finally be able to realize some of his goals with this new stream of income. He’s been writing poetry for 30 years, he said, and has plans to publish 25 books full of his work.

Anthony Bruce, meanwhile, works as a security guard, but can now capitalize on his broad language knowledge and expand his side job as a English-as-a-second-language teacher, his father said. Michael Bruce, Derrick Bruce’s other son, is an interior designer and Marcus has a children’s book series ready to publish.

“The money will enable all of us to reach our potential,” Derrick Bruce said. “We really want to be able to find ways to grow from this experience and find more opportunities to take action and become more involved with helping and improving other people’s lives; this is definitely a benchmark for us.”

A family reunion in July 2018 at Bruce’s Beach Park — nearby land that wasn’t owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, but was also scooped up during Manhattan Beach’s eminent domain effort and remains in the city’s hands — started the true movement to reclaim the land, Shepard said Wednesday.

“My family declared this was sacred land. I said I was going to do everything I can to get it back,” Shepard said. “We didn’t know who or how then, all we knew was God was going to make a way out of no way.”

Anthony Bruce and Shepard started planning how to move forward.

In June 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide call for police reform and the end to systemic racism, Ward held a Juneteenth celebration at Bruce’s Beach Park — which also served as an opportunity for the local activist to educate people about the Bruce family.

That catalyzed the movement to return the land, a movement Bradford and Hahn soon picked up on.

And now, Bernard Bruce’s lifelong goal has come true. But he never got to see it: Bernard Bruce died in 2020.

Moving forward, Derrick Bruce said, he wants to use this family triumph to help others.

“I feel now that we have the land back, we need to pay it forward,” he said. “There are oppressed people all over the world (who can, like us,) go from disenfranchised to re-enfranchised.”

Bradford, for his part, said America is still grappling with the legacy of slavery.

“America has stolen and denied more property from African Americans than we’ve ever looted and burned,” Bradford said. “If ripples effects of slavery didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here correcting this wrong that has lingered for so long.”

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