Op-Ed: Bruce’s Beach will be returned to my family. I hope our fight will help others
I was 5 years old when my father told me that my great-great-grandparents’ business on a beautiful stretch of Manhattan Beach had been taken from them decades earlier. It was a shocking and disturbing revelation for me as a young boy.
Now, decades later, my family and I experienced a major milestone Thursday when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 796, paving the way for Los Angeles County to return the property to us, the direct descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.
Willa and Charles purchased the beachfront property in the 1920s, chasing the American dream. Inspired by the African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, Willa wanted to be a thriving business owner.
They succeeded. Their lodge, which became known as Bruce’s Beach, quickly became a lucrative business, attracting Black families who were prohibited from using other beaches due to “whites only” restrictions.
Unfortunately, by doing so well for their family and community, my great-great-grandparents garnered the attention of some jealous and hateful white people living in the area. They saw the couple’s success as a “Negro invasion.” The Ku Klux Klan and local real estate agents plotted ways to harass them. In 1924, city officials took my family’s property through eminent domain, claiming the need for a public park.
Before Manhattan Beach shut it down, Bruce’s Beach was a famous Black-owned beach resort. Now, some want the city to atone for its actions.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that a public park was actually established on my family’s property, after officials began to worry that my family might sue to regain ownership of the land. There are no traces of Charles and Willa’s early and promising business success — only a sign marking it as Bruce’s Beach after the Manhattan Beach City Council voted to name it that in 2006.
But my family, including my grandfather Bernard Bruce, Chief Duane Yellowfeather Shepard and myself, has never given up the fight on behalf of our ancestors. And this successful first step to return the property to us is significant for many reasons.
It will allow my family to do what countless other American families have done since our country’s founding: inherit property and build family wealth over generations. The transfer of the property will provide a significant financial benefit for us while also giving us a sense of closure on a troubling chapter in our family’s history.
The return of the property also strengthens the legitimacy of our government institutions. When our elected officials use their power and authority to redress the wrongs committed against their people, it shows moral sobriety and demonstrates the validity of how our government can respond to complex issues such as these.
The signing of SB 796 adds to the dialogue about how to engage the legacy of racially motivated economic injustices committed in our country against African Americans and others.
My family is grateful for the work of all those who helped show leadership and creativity in returning this property to Bruce heirs, including L.A. County supervisors, state senators, former mayors, local justice activists and historians. It may not have happened without the news media casting a bright light on the injustice done to our family.
I’ll never know whether my family’s business would have grown to rival that of Hilton or Marriott, both of which were founded around the same time as Bruce’s Beach and grew from equally humble beginnings.
I have plans to one day soon return to my family’s land. When I go back to that stretch of Manhattan Beach, I won’t think only of the injustice done to my ancestors. I’ll also think of the progress our country has made.
Anthony Bruce is a Florida resident and descendant of Willa and Charles Bruce.
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