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LA County returns Bruce’s Beach to the Black family over 90 years after Manhattan Beach took it

The nation’s first apparent act of property-based reparations is complete – awaiting escrow.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 28 to return two parcels of beachfront property to the Bruce family, more than 90 years after Manhattan Beach used eminent domain, for racist reasons, to take away the property of their ancestors.

The vote marks the culmination of more than a year of legislative maneuvering to return the land to the Bruce family.

The land was once home to Bruce’s Beach Lodge, a black-owned and operated resort as a recreational haven in the early 20th century, a time when African Americans did not have access to the coast.

But Manhattan Beach, where the property is located, used eminent domain to repossess land owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, who were black, and other nearby properties. The city’s eminent domain effort, according to historical records, was motivated by a desire to force black people out of Manhattan Beach.

But now, with an arduous and legally complex process all but complete, the land will revert to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce: after a 30-day lock-up period, the Bruce’s great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick Bruce, will inherit the 7,000 square foot property, valued at $20 million.

Map of the Bruce’s plots of land near Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach. (Jeff Goertzen)

“To our knowledge, this is the first time the government has returned property to a black family after recognizing it was taken inappropriately,” said family attorney Bruce George C. Fatheree, partner of the law firm Sidley Austin, during a public comment on Tuesday. . “And we hope it won’t be the last.”

Americans have already received reparations for historic injustices, the New York Times wrote in a June 19, 2019, article, including Japanese Americans interned during World War II; survivors of police abuse in Chicago; victims of forced sterilization; and the black residents of a Florida town that was burned down by a murderous white mob.

But public officials, the Bruce family and other supporters of the county’s effort said the return of the two parcels to Manhattan Beach was the first known case of reparations in the form of ownership.

Fatheree, who represented the Bruces throughout the land transfer process, also said the council’s decision to return the land will allow the family to heal – and repay generations of lost wealth.

Once the Bruces receive the deed, they will lease the property to the county for $413,000 a year for two years, under a deal supervisors approved on Tuesday. Once that lease ends, the family will have the option of selling the property back to the county for $20 million.

The county will transfer the land to the Bruces with no restrictions on its use. Manhattan Beach, however, still has the power to change zoning laws on what types of properties can operate in its coastal zone.

Derrick and Marcus Bruce, great-grandsons of Willa and Charles, will manage the property with the help of Anthony Bruce, Derrick’s son.

“As a family,” Anthony Bruce said in a statement Tuesday evening, “we are all so grateful to everyone involved who has helped us build momentum and hope as we try to properly reclaim our lands. .”

Anthony and his brother, Michael, will share the inheritance with their father and uncle, according to Bruce’s descendant and family spokesperson Duane Shepard.

Although the Bruces and the County will pay the costs of closing the deal, the latter will reimburse the family $50,000. This money must then be donated to a non-profit legal service provider who assists the Bruces in transactions.

The Bruces will be responsible for all property taxes for the current fiscal year and beyond.

The LA County Lifeguard Training Station will remain on Bruce land for at least the next two years. The county will pay all operating and maintenance costs during the term of the lease, in accordance with the agreement.

There is no plan yet for what the Bruces will do with the property after the lease ends, Antony Bruce said in a prequel, as everyone is gathering to see where they can go as a family.

The effort to return the land to the Bruces began in April 2021 with the introduction of state Senate Bill 796, which removed restrictions on deeds that prevented the county from transferring property back to the Bruces. County supervisors backed the bill, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in September.

Parcels currently being returned to the Bruces are bordered by 26th and 27th Streets, Manhattan Avenue and The Strand. In 1948, about 20 years after Manhattan Beach took over this land, the city gave the property to the state.

The state, in turn, gave the parcels to LA County in 1995, on the condition that the county could not transfer ownership. That’s why the SB 796 was needed.

This parcel of land, beachfront property, is currently the site of a lifeguard training facility in Manhattan Beach on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. The LA County Board of Supervisors must approve a lease today with two great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, who was denied generational wealth when the property was confiscated from them in an eminent domain action.  (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)
This parcel of land, beachfront property, is currently the site of a lifeguard training facility in Manhattan Beach on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. The LA County Board of Supervisors must approve a lease today with two great-grandsons of Willa and Charles Bruce, who was denied generational wealth when the property was confiscated from them in an eminent domain action. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Manhattan Beach’s use of eminent domain in the late 1920s also reclaimed other nearby properties, with leaders of that generation declaring they wanted to turn the area into a park. But the land sat vacant for decades before that happened. Eventually, the open space was renamed Bruce’s Beach Park.

The city still owns this park.

As for the Bruce family plots, the heir verification process delayed the transfer, Shepard said in a previous interview, with more than 100 people falsely claiming to be direct descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

“It’s been a battle,” Shepard said last week. “I’m just happy, really relieved it’s finally come to the point where the family is going to get their land back.”

Shepard had been researching his family’s genealogy since 1994, he said, and in 2017 he found Willa and Charles’ connections to himself and other members of the Bruce family.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said, “but for it to happen so quickly since 2020 I could never have imagined.”

Before elected officials became interested in rectifying what they now recognize as a historic injustice, activist Kavon Ward hosted an event that drew attention to the Bruce story.

In June 2020, about a month after George Floyd was murdered by police, Ward planned a picnic at Bruce’s Beach Park to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday marking when the last group of African Americans reduced to slavery, in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom in 1865. , two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

At the event, Ward asked why the venue — once a Black recreation site — was now a hilly, grassy public recreation area. She helped spark the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, which eventually caught the attention of officials, including County Supervisor Janice Hahn and State Senator Steven Bradford, who worked to return the land to the family.

“I’m excited,” Ward said last week. “I am full of gratitude to have been used as a vessel to help make this happen.”

Hahn, whose Fourth Ward included Manhattan Beach before the 10-year redistricting changed the boundaries, said Tuesday the monumental decision could be the first of its kind — but won’t be the last.

“We can’t change the past and we can never right the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago,” Hahn said. “But it’s a start. And by returning the property to their great-grandsons, we’re allowing the family to start rebuilding the generational wealth that has been denied for decades.

Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who now represents Manhattan Beach, said the act would not make up for all the wrongs done to black residents in California’s past. She also mentioned the indigenous peoples of the state.

“Today, we don’t transfer ownership to anyone. We are returning property that was taken from them in error — based on fear and hate,” Mitchell said at Tuesday’s meeting of supervisors. “It does not repair the harm caused to all the people of this land – or frankly to other black families who owned adjacent plots. Black and Indigenous history and narratives are interconnected.

Both Mitchell and Hahn said they would work with native leaders in Los Angeles to possibly provide reparations for similar cases of stolen land in the future.

“I’m so grateful that we’re going to look at our Native American history,” supervisor Hilda Solis said. “It certainly sets a precedent for us to step forward and recognize other injustices.”

Shortly after voting to approve the final transfer of ownership to the Bruce family, supervisors took a brief break to sign the paperwork – an administrative irregularity they said was intended to ensure there was no more time wasted returning the property to its rightful owners.

Anthony Bruce, in his statement, said County returning the packages was a long time coming – and that he and his living relatives would work to ensure Charles and Willa’s work was not wasted.

He also pointed out that his family is not alone in having land confiscated on discriminatory grounds.

“Many families across the United States have been driven from their homes and lands,” said Anthony Bruce. “I hope these monumental events encourage these families to continue to trust and believe that they will one day get what they deserve.

“We hope that our country will no longer accept prejudice as acceptable behavior,” he added, “and we must be united against it because it no longer has a place in our society today.”