How the effort to return the California beach lands went to the original black owners
Manhattan Beach activist Kavon Ward was preparing her 4-year-old for a bath when she heard the news:
A state bill that would pave the way for Los Angeles County to return two oceanfront plots of land in Manhattan Beach to the descendants of the original black owners was on its way for Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature.
âI started to cry and cry like a baby,â Ward said in an interview on Friday, Sept. 10, a day after the state Senate approved the bill. “I was tottering.”
Ward was one of the key figures in an ongoing movement to seek justice for Willa and Charles Bruce, who owned and operated a beachfront lodge for African Americans in the early 20th century, at a time when black people had limited access to the coast. . But the rulers of Manhattan Beach at the time used a prominent estate to take their property.
The city ultimately gave these two plots to the state, which decades later transferred them to the county. This latest transfer agreement prohibited the county from giving or selling the land to anyone – which is why the state bill was needed.
Manhattan Beach, meanwhile, still has a much larger piece of land which it has also taken over via a prominent estate. This land eventually became a park. The area is now called Bruce’s Beach Park.
Ward, family representative Bruce Duane Shepard, county supervisor Janice Hahn and state senator Steven Bradford were among the most influential people in the land restitution effort, which officials say is a unique initiative in the country.
But how did Bruce’s Beach Lodge – the former seaside resort – and its owners go from a footnote in Manhattan Beach history to topics in national headlines and, ultimately, a joint effort of the State and county to make amends?
George Floyd and Juneteenth
The genesis of the Bruce’s Beach movement began amid a nationwide reckoning of police brutality and systemic racism.
Ward, like thousands of others across the country, became enraged after seeing the video last year of George Floyd, a black man, being killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis who knelt on his neck.
A wave of protests swept across the country, including in LA County. Even areas with relatively small black populations have seen protesters congregating – like Manhattan Beach.
Ward, who is black, has since formed a disbanded group of moms advocating anti-racism. It was during this time that she first learned the history of Bruce’s Beach through blog posts.
âDid this happen in the community where I lived? Ward wondered. ” How are you ? I wonder how many other people don’t know about this.
The answer, it turned out, was a lot.
âI am embarrassed to admit that I only learned about the history of Bruce’s Beach very recently,â Hahn said on Friday. “It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and the Justice for Bruce’s Beach protests that I began to understand the history and injustice of what happened.”
Ward eventually formed the Justice for Bruce’s Beach group. But before that, she had planned a June 17, 2020 celebration at Bruce’s Beach Park.
The goal is twofold: to celebrate June 19, 1865, the day the last slaves in Texas learned their freedom, and to share the history of the Bruce’s.
During the Juneteenth celebration, a TV reporter asked Ward what she would like to see happen with the earth.
Ward thought for a moment, then the answer hit her.
âI would like to see policies that would return this land to the family,â she replied.
âIt came to me like that,â Ward said on Friday. âI mean, it makes sense. It was theirs. It should always be theirs.
And so, it seems, it will be soon.
But first, the movement had to gain momentum.
In July 2020, Black South Bay leaders shared their experiences of racism at a virtual panel discussion chaired by MP Al Muratsuchi.
A month later, Ward’s anti-racist group started a petition demanding reparations for the Bruce family. A week later, about 80 people marched from Manhattan Beach City Hall to Bruce’s Beach.
Then something big happened: Ward’s petition caught the attention of the national Black Lives Matter movement – which helped amplify the problem.
Manhattan Beach officials, for their part, decided to act in the months following the June 15 celebration. In August 2020, the city created a task force to explore repairs, examine the history of Bruce’s Beach, and update the wording for the Bruce’s Beach Park plaque.
But in September of that year, city council pointed out something: The plots the Bruce family once owned were not under the city’s control. On the contrary, the county owned this land now.
It surprised Hahn as well – and inspired her.
“It wasn’t until my staff and I got a map of the land in the area that I realized that the property Bruce owned was now owned by the county and that I had an opportunity to do something about it.” , said Hahn. “I decided then and there that if I had the power to return the land to the Bruces, this is what I would do.”
In February, Hahn, whose fourth borough includes Manhattan Beach, met Anthony Bruce, the great-great-grandson of Willa and Charles Bruce. Then she met with the county attorneys.
“They told me it had never been done before,” Hahn recalls, “but it was possible.”
Hahn therefore decided to do it.
In April, Hahn, Bradford, other elected officials and the Bruce family gathered in Manhattan Beach to announce a joint effort: Supervisors would develop a plan to transfer the two plots to Bruce’s descendants and Bradford would draft Senate Bill 796. to allow the county to do so.
“The time is now for a major change,” Bradford said during the announcement, “and the public wants justice – not empty words.”
Shepard, for his part, gave a message of hope about the initiative and an idea he had for the near future.
“To take possession of our land,” he said in the April announcement, “and have a weeklong family reunion with 3,000 Black Bruces – right here on this beach.”
Bradford introduced the bill a week later.
But then began the often slow process of getting co-authors, tweaking the language, and sending the bill to committee.
The state Senate first passed the bill – unanimously in June – and sent it to the assembly.
Around the same time, Juneteenth’s second annual celebration took place at Bruce’s Beach. Hundreds attended. Family members Bruce, Ward, Hahn and Bradford all spoke out – and praised the efforts to return the land.
Soon after, LA County released the Plot Transfer Action Plan, which shows a complex process and lingering questions, including the future of a rescue tower that currently sits on both plots. . More information is expected to be released later this year.
Then came September – and a looming deadline. The legislative session was scheduled to end on Friday, September 10, and SB 796 was scheduled to pass by then.
The bill traveled through relevant Assembly committees before being introduced earlier this week. It was adopted unanimously.
But not before the Assembly has added non-substantial amendments. The bill had to go through the Senate once again.
Ward knew Bill could cut him close. She knows how the legislative bodies work. After all, she was a legislative member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2007 for former US Representative Albert Wynn, D-Maryland.
âIn my heart, I knew this would happen,â Ward said, âBut there’s still that unease.â
After 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 9 – the day before the legislative session ended – the state Senate approved the bill for the second time. SB 796 is now awaiting Newsom’s signature.
âI just had this tide come over me,â Ward said of that moment. âThere was this feeling of like minds talking to me and saying, ‘You did it regardless of all the roadblocks. “”
All in all, the effort, at this point, took 14 months.
Obstacles remain, however.
And Newsom signing the bill is perhaps the smallest of them.
A June note from county CEO Fesia Davenport detailed the complex steps required to transfer the land. This memo lists the main issues for the county to address:
- Property Assessment: The county must assess both parcels, as well as all other parcels in Block 5.
- Property Tax Issues: The land transfer can impose tax burdens on the family and the county determines how to reduce that burden.
- Relocation of the Lifeguard Training Center: If the Bruce family heirs choose not to lease the land to the county – which is an option – the LA County Fire Department Lifeguard Training Center will need to be relocated, a process that could take up to two years.
- Lineage Determination: The county must review Charles and Willa Bruce’s legal heirs and may hire a third-party law firm to do so.
The CEO’s office and the Anti-Racism, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative should advise supervisors on how to proceed with the land transfer before the end of the year.
But Hahn, in a statement on Thursday, made it clear what his main focus was:
“I am determined,” said the supervisor, “to return Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family.”