by Mark McDermott
Kavon Ward arrived at the podium with her right hand raised in the air. She stood silently for a moment, taking in the gathering of dignitaries, Bruce family members, activists, reporters, photographers, musicians, dancers, and Manhattan Beach residents.
“Justice,” she said, her voice booming, “for Bruce’s Beach.”
Ward founded the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement a little over two years ago. The movement’s goal came to full fruition Wednesday morning when the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder Dean Logan handed Anthony Bruce the documentation officially transferring the deed to the land.
“It’s a bureaucratic document, but it is the official record that will show the transfer,” Logan said. “It symbolizes for all of us that it is always the right time to do the right thing.”
Ninety-three years ago, Willa and Charles Bruce lost the land upon which Wednesday’s gathering occurred. Against significant odds, in 1912 the couple founded a resort that gave Black people a rare place to congregate at the beach. They met resistance immediately, particularly from George Peck, one of the fledgling city’s founders, who during the first weekend Bruce’s Lodge was open had the beach in front of it fenced off. The Bruces and their guests were undaunted. They walked a half mile around the fence to reach the ocean.
“Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Willa Bruce told the L.A. Times. “But I own this land, and I am going to keep it.”
By 1929, that dream appeared lost, when the City claimed the land through the racially motivated use of its power of eminent domain as well as the land from five other African American families who’d begun to form a community on adjacent and several white absentee landowners. The Bruces were compensated for the land that they had never intended to sell, or leave. Both would be dead within five years.
But the dream lived on. Their grandson Bernard Bruce was obsessed with the loss of the land, and though his anger coursed through the family like a curse, so did his belief that this beachfront belonged to his family. Many unlikely things had to align for what finally occurred Wednesday morning to occur, including the City giving the state the two parcels the Bruce’s had owned in 1948, and the state ceding that land to L.A. County in 1995. Historians kept the memory of what had occurred alive, first in the form of a master’s thesis written by a young Manhattan Beach resident, Robert Bingham, back in 1954 that answered his own lifelong questions about how and why this beachfront remained an empty lot., and later, in the early 2000s, a young historian named Alison Rose Jefferson, who did graduate work at USC investigating the matter and later incorporated this research into her book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era. The adjacent land, where all the Black families except the Bruce’s had lived, had eventually become a park, first named Bayview Terrace Park, then Parque Culiacan, until Manhattan Beach’s first Black mayor, Mitch Ward, with Rose’s assistance, in 2006 led a charge to restore its name as Bruce’s Beach.
And then, in 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement surged across the nation, Kavon Ward discovered this nearly lost history and launched her movement, which began with a Juneteenth rally at Bruce’s Beach park. This caught the attention of Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district then covered Manhattan Beach, who did some research of her own and came to understand that the land occupied by the LA County Lifeguard’s training facility on 26th and 27th Street on the Strand was the actual Bruce’s Beach. She made inquiries about returning the land to the family with the County’s lawyers.
“They told me nothing like this had ever been done before,” Hahn recalled Wednesday. “No government in this country has returned land that was taken from a black family unjustly. They said the work ahead of us would be unprecedented.”
Hahn said the land transfer would send a message to every government in the nation.
“This work is no longer unprecedented,” she said. “We have set the precedent in the pursuit of justice. Today, we are returning stolen land for the first time, but it will not be the last.”
“Today, I’m thinking of Willa Bruce, who never gave up on getting this land back for her family. I’m thinking of her children and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who were denied the generational wealth and opportunity that should have been theirs.”
Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who, after redistricting now represents the district that includes Manhattan Beach, partnered with Hahn in leading the legislative movement that made the transfer possible. She said she woke up Wednesday morning with an “ah ha” moment, a desire to time travel to the moment Willa and Charles hatched the unlikely plan to build Bruce’s Beach “in segregated Los Angeles County.”
“Can you imagine? I would want to time travel and be a fly on the wall to hear that conversation.” Mitchell said. “Because here we are in 2022, where there are fewer black homeowners than during the time when LA County had redlining, and there were only certain areas where Black people could buy property.”
Mitchell pointedly made reference to the “historically accurate” plaque the County erected by the Strand that describes what the Bruce family experienced.
“I’m clear that today we are correcting but one family harm, and this property had unique circumstances that allowed us as the County to return this property,” Mitchell said. “And let’s be clear, by no means does this fully repair or solve the harm that government action has rendered upon an entire population and generations of people.”
Senator Steven Bradford, who is a member of the state’s reparation task force and authored the bill that made the land transfer possible, said that the return of Bruce’s Beach represented a beginning.
“It is a bittersweet day,” he said. “While this celebration is commemorating the return of land that was stolen, it is also a call of duty for each and every one of us. If we see injustice, do not stay quiet and do nothing about it. Do not marinate in complacency, thinking that racial justice is just part of history, and does not have ramifications for today, because it does….I’ve been asked, ‘Is this reparations?’ And I say, ‘Hell no.’ This is returning property that was rightfully owned by a family.”
The land now belongs to an LLC formed by the Bruce family, which includes Willa and Charles Bruce’s great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick, and Derrick’s sons, Anthony and Micheal. The four direct descendants will share the inheritance equally. Anthony Bruce will head the LLC. The County will enter into a two-year lease with the Bruces at $413,000 annual rent, after which, according to terms of the lease agreement, the Bruces can require the County to purchase the land for $20 million. Alternatively, the Bruces can keep the land to lease or sell it on the open market.
Anthony Bruce, a deeply religious man, gave brief remarks that were steeped in gratitude. He quoted a passage from the Bible, “So now you may be sons of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. He sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Then he read a long list to whom he gave thanks. It included the dozens of people who played a part in Bruce’s Beach, from Charles and Willa to the many government officials involved. He named every television and newspaper reporter who covered Bruce’s Beach, and in the end circled back to where he started. “Without God, we would not be here today,” he said. “And finally, most importantly, thank you all.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” the Sam Cooke civil rights song, was played midway through the ceremony. Two dancers from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy performed, as did the Inner City Youth Orchestra, which played “Amazing Grace.” It was the kind of artistic presence not felt on this land since Bruce’s Lodge hosted some of the early jazz luminaries a century ago. At one point, Kavon Ward asked everyone to pause and feel the presence of Charles and Willa Bruce.
“The ancestors are here,” she said. “I had a vision, a vision, which has been fully realized today, a vision that was once taken from a people be returned, a vision that something that had never been done before in history happens for the first time.”
“They’re here,” said Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of and spokesperson for the Bruces. “They are here. And they are smiling.”
He recalled a family reunion at Bruce’s Beach park four years ago.
“Back on July 14 2018, this crazy old man and 200 Bruce family members stood up on the top of that hill,” Shepard said. “In front of many Manhattan Beach dignitaries, my family declared that this was sacred land. And I was going to do everything I could to get it back repatriated to the family. Everyone thought I was crazy. I thought I was crazy, too. Well, here we are….We didn’t know who then, or how then, all we knew is that God was going to make a way out of nowhere.”
Hahn directly addressed the Bruce family.
“We can’t change the past and we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to your great great grandparents and great grandparents, Willa and Charles, nearly a century ago,” she said. “But this is a start.” ER
Photos by Kevin Cody