Nearly 100 years after black couple were kicked off California beach, unprecedented plan would transfer land to rightful heirs

LOS ANGELES — In a plan released for the first time, Los Angeles County officials have detailed how they will complete the unprecedented transfer of Bruce’s Beach to the descendants of a black couple who were kicked out of Manhattan Beach nearly of a century.

The beachfront property, valued at $20 million after a complicated valuation, would pass to the Bruce family following an escrow process, according to the proposed plan released Wednesday evening. The county would then lease the Bruce property for $413,000 a year and maintain a county lifeguard facility at the site.

“This land should never have been taken from the Bruce family over 90 years ago. Now we stand on the precipice of long overdue redemption and justice,” said Holly Mitchell, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “While we cannot change the past, we have a responsibility to learn from it and do what is right today. …I look forward to standing with my colleagues on the right side of history.

County staff and a legal team representing the Bruce family pro bono spent months ironing out the details and considering all the possible outcomes. They have received support from state lawmakers and reparations advocates — as well as Governor Gavin Newsom, who authorized the transfer last September and codified into law that the property was wrongfully taken.

State and city leaders across the country watched to see exactly how the historic transfer would be carried out. Many say Bruce’s Beach could pave the way for those seeking to address past injustices that have violently dispossessed Indigenous peoples and prevented Blacks, Latinos, Japanese Americans and many others from owning property and to create wealth in this country.

“It was not an easy process … there was no precedent for this,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who said a team of attorneys went through the books and found no comparable case study. “We wanted it to be foolproof. We wanted to transfer ownership to the Bruce family in the safest way possible so that they would not inherit any legal challenges or any type of burden.

The proposed deal will go to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for a vote next Tuesday. If approved, the transfer would fulfill a call to action that began more than two years ago – when the grassroots Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement sparked a national conversation and forced a settling of scores in Manhattan Beach.

The history of Bruce’s Beach begins with the Tongva people, who tended this stretch of coast before property developers claimed their ownership in the early 1900s and built what is now known as Manhattan Beach. .

By 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce had made their way to California. Willa paid $1,225 for the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th Streets and ran a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall that offered a rare welcome to black families looking for a weekend -end by the sea.

Many have called the area Bruce’s Beach. A few other black families, attracted to this new community, bought and built their own cabins nearby.

But the Bruces and their guests have faced growing threats from white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan and local real estate agents allegedly plotted ways to harass them.

When racism failed to drive this black beach community out of town, city officials in 1924 condemned the neighborhood and seized more than two dozen properties on eminent domain. The reason, they said, was an urgent need for a public park.

But for decades, the properties sat empty. The two oceanfront lots that belonged to the Bruces were transferred to the state in 1948, then to the county in 1995. As for the other lots, the municipal authorities eventually transformed them into a pretty park overlooking the ocean.

When Hahn realized the county now owned the two plots where the Bruce resort once stood, she sprang into action. She called out Charles and Willa Bruce’s great-great-grandson, Anthony Bruce, who was honored in 2020 after the story of Bruce’s Beach became a national story.

“I just want justice for my family,” he told Hahn, explaining how this painful story tore his family apart. Bruce, a security supervisor in Florida, said his father rarely talks about the beach that bears the family’s name. “I’m just looking for hope and mercy.”

Hahn joined Mitchell and State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who rallied state lawmakers and the governor to authorize the transfer from public to private ownership.

Every step of this process has been unexplored – and ripe for challenge. A Palos Verdes Estates resident took it to court almost immediately after the county tried to move forward, saying the transfer of ownership would be an unconstitutional “gift,” among other objections.

When Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff reviewed the case in April, he dismissed it, saying not only is the transfer of ownership legal, but also essential to maintaining the integrity of government.

“The court finds that when the appropriation of public funds and/or property is intended to address and/or remedy racial discrimination by government, it serves a public purpose,” Beckloff wrote in its ruling. “Righting a governmental wrong committed in violation of our fundamental constitutional principles helps strengthen governmental integrity, represents government accountability, and helps eliminate structural racism and bias.”

George Fatheree, a real estate attorney who represents the Bruce family pro bono, helped the Bruces and the county figure out the more intricate details. They conducted separate genealogical studies and confirmed four direct descendants: Anthony Bruce and his father, brother and uncle. (112 people went through the county’s legal heir determination process to see if they were related to Charles and Willa Bruce.)

They also went through a complex appraisal process and economic analysis to determine the value of the property. Finally, they laid out a plan: Once the county transfers the property, it will enter into a two-year agreement to lease the property for $413,000 per year and cover all operating and maintenance costs.

The lease also includes a right for the county to purchase the land for $20 million. Both parties have agreed that two years gives them a reasonable amount of time to consider this option as a possible long-term arrangement.

“At the end of the day, no one has done this before. There’s no map or playbook,” Fatheree said. — both so he can withstand any lawsuits or challenges and also so that if other governments are inspired and follow the county’s steps, they have what hopefully amounts to something. useful to follow.

Hahn admitted the process was stressful at times — and even more complicated than she imagined. It was like the world was watching their every move, she said. The county was getting calls from members of Congress, the state’s reparations task force, and city leaders across the country.

As delicate as this process has been to unfold, what happened at Bruce’s Beach may end up being much clearer than other injustices that have taken place in this country. But just because something is difficult and just because something happened 100 years ago, Hahn says, doesn’t mean it’s too late to try.

This is just the beginning, she says. “I hope we spend the next 100 years righting more wrongs.”

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