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Bruce's Beach History Unveiled; City Plans Task Force

Aug 19, 2020 10:53AM ● By Jeanne Fratello
After months of debate and disagreement surrounding Bruce's Beach, the Manhattan Beach City Council formally began its dialogue on the subject on Tuesday night with a presentation on the history of the controversial park.

The presentation covered the history of Charles and Willa Bruce and their popular beach resort for African Americans in Manhattan Beach in the early 1900s. By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want African Americans in the town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruces and other families who had settled in the area. It was not until 2006 that the city publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area Bruce's Beach, and it was not until this summer that a growing movement began calling on the city to take further action.

"Some have said that this story cannot be told by our city - that we may be biased," said council member Nancy Hersman, who had taken the lead on the history presentation. "I agree that the history was not told [by the city in the past]. I'd like to think it’s different this time. White Americans are looking at the racial injustices that have been brought upon African Americans in American history - and Bruce's Beach is our history."

Following the history presentation, the council called for the creation of a task force to examine next steps for Bruce's Beach. 

Bruce's Beach History

According to the presentation delivered by city management analyst Alexandria Latragna, in 1912, Willa Bruce purchased the first of two adjacent lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th Streets for $1,225. She and her husband Charles were among the first African American residents of Manhattan Beach, and she was considered a pioneer by many because of her entrepreneurial spirit. The Bruces built a two‐story building with accommodations for dancing upstairs and a café downstairs on the first lot in 1913 known as Bruce’s Lodge.

The Bruces' successful business of renting bathing suits, umbrellas and other beach items, as well as later a dining hall and small overnight accommodations, became a very popular venue for African American Angelenos (who otherwise had limited beach opportunities in Los Angeles County) on weekends and in the summer.

However, as Manhattan Beach became more and more popular among Los Angeles’ African American families, the resentment and fear among the white residents became increasingly evident. A series of threats to African American families and establishments included beach areas being roped off, fires being set, ordinances being enacted to limit the beach businesses, and increased activity among local Ku Klux Klan groups.

In 1924, the city passed an ordinance declaring its intention to acquire through eminent domain the land that the Bruces and other families owned to turn it into a park. The condemnation covered 30 lots in the tract. Five were owned by the African American families and had either cottages on their lots or the two lots of the Bruce’s Lodge. The other 25 lots were owned by white owners and none had buildings on them.

The Bruces and several other families filed motions opposing the condemnation, stating in part, that city's motivation was to move them out because they were African American, and that the proceedings were arbitrary, oppressive and inspired by racial prejudice.

Nevertheless, the city moved forward, and when the eminent domain proceedings began, the Bruces claimed $70,000 for their property and $50,000 in damages. They received $14,500 for their two lots. Although other displaced families purchased other lots in the city, the Bruces left Manhattan Beach.

In a 1945 newspaper clipping from The Redondo Reflex, Frank Daugherty, a member of the city's board of trustees, admitted that the condemnation was racially motivated. In the article he is quoted as saying, “We tried to buy them out, but they would not sell....We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem, so we voted to condemn them, and make a city park there. We had to protect ourselves. Our attorney advised the members of the council never to admit the real purpose in establishing the park, especially during the council meeting.”

After condemnation, the city did not build the park for almost 30 years. The lack of action on the city's part added to the theory that the city did not actually want the park and that it was part of an effort to remove the African American families and the Bruce’s business from Manhattan Beach.

In 1962 the site was established as Bayview Terrace Park. In 1974, the city renamed the park Parque Culiacan, after the City of Culiacan, Mexico to honor its sister city.

In 2006, the city council, under the leadership of its first African American mayor, Mitch Ward, voted to rename the park Bruce's Beach. The language on the plaque referenced George Peck and how he made it possible for the beach area to be used by African Americans - an assertion that was later disputed. Local historian Bob Brigham, who wrote his thesis on Bruce's Beach, claimed that since Peck did not try to stop the condemnation and was also a part of a bogus lease to keep African Americans off of the beach, he did not "graciously open" the tract to African American families as some believed.

The plaque, as written, is what stands at Bruce's Beach today.

A Conversation That "Forced Us to Think Deeply"

City Council members reacted positively to the history presentation. 

"The past few months have really forced us to think deeply about how we engage in this discussion about social justice," said council member Hildy Stern. "This conversation came from the realization that we all shared at the end of the police forum - the one thing we universally said is that we do have work to do."

Stern noted that there were a variety of ways that the issue could be approached, including but not limited to re-doing the plaque, creating a museum-like history display, or seeking some form of restorative justice or reparations.

"This is really an opportunity not just to look at our past but to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s an opportunity to move forward to a solution," she said.

Council member Steve Napolitano agreed with the need to change the plaque. He suggested creating some sort of larger commemorative art piece with pictures and graphics, possibly on the Strand, to be made in cooperation with the city's art commission; as well as considering renaming Peck Avenue. He added that he believed that the city should issue an apology, not just to the Bruces, but for the systemic racism at the time that affected many African American families in the city.

"Bruce's Beach remains a stain on our history, just as racism across the nation remains a stain," said Napolitano. "There are still things that go on today, as we all know. It’s up to every one of us to fight that one a daily basis. The question for us is, how do we correct the past?"

While public comment has run the gamut on ideas for how to move forward or let the issue lie, the members of the public who spoke at the meeting strongly favored reparations. 

Kavon Ward, a Manhattan Beach resident and one of the founders of Anti-Racist Movements (ARMs) Around the South Bay (L.A.) who held a Juneteenth celebration at Bruce's Beach, called on the city to take stronger actions to atone for the its past.

"Are you going to pay the Bruces back? Are you going to give them the land back? We’re going to keep asking these questions until you give us answers," Ward told the council.

City Council's 2006 Priorities Disputed

Meanwhile, what happened with the city council's actions in 2006 continued to remain in dispute; particularly the question of whether leaders were satisfied with the plaque and its wording at the time.

Mayor Pro Tem Suzanne Hadley said that she read the full transcript of the July 2006 meeting when the council decided to name the park after the Bruces. She noted that Mayor Ward at the time said that he only wanted the renaming of the park, and that he had supported the wording on the plaque that included George Peck's name.

Hadley added that historian Alison Rose Jefferson, who wrote a book on African American leisure sites with a chapter on Bruce's Beach (and who had been originally invited to speak at the city's presentation), had also testified at Manhattan Beach's 2006 meeting to say that renaming the park was a "fabulous" way to make the public more aware of what had happened in the past.

Additionally, Hadley noted, Willa and Charles Bruce’s grandson was interviewed in 2006 when the park was renamed and said that it was the happiest day of his life.

"Times change, people change," said Hadley. "I’m fine if we change [the plaque] now, but let’s please not rewrite our history that everyone hated [the plaque] in 2006. That wasn’t the case."

Hersman said that she had asked Jefferson about this issue, and Jefferson had told her that Ward was trying to get the language approved by "four white people," and that including Peck's name made it more palatable to the rest of the council at the time. 

Mayor Richard Montgomery, who was a council member in 2006, had at the time called for the city to issue an apology to the Bruces. That idea was rejected by other council members. "I apologize that I didn't fight for it more 14 years ago," he said.

However, Montgomery said, the city's current action to create a task force that could explore further options was an important step forward. "Times change," said Montgomery.  "We can show that we’re open to things. We’re not closing the door because we only took one action."

Montgomery highlighted a conversation that he had had earlier in the day with Manhattan Beach resident Anthony Lee, a former professor of African American history at UCLA. (Lee had told the council that his grandfather was forced to relinquish property in Manhattan Beach after World War II due to restrictive covenants on African Americans owning property.) Montgomery said he would want to have Lee as a member of the task force, as a local resident with direct experience in discrimination against African American property owners.

Montgomery called this issue and the ensuing discussion a "golden opportunity" to demonstrate to the South Bay and beyond that the city could change and find ways to become more inclusive and welcoming.

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