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County, State Lawmakers Vow to Return Land to Bruce Family

Apr 09, 2021 03:38PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce does not take a position on these issues.

County and state officials gathered at the site of the original Bruce's Beach resort in Manhattan Beach on Friday, vowing to begin the process of returning the land to the Bruce family. 

The property the Bruce family once owned - once a thriving resort for Black beach-goers who were not allowed on other beaches - is now the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters. The land was taken by the city of Manhattan Beach in 1929 through eminent domain. It was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995.

"The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn at Friday morning's press conference. "This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce, but generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep this property and their successful business."

Hahn continued: "When I realized that the county of Los Angeles now had ownership of the Bruces' original property, I wanted to do what I could to start righting this wrong," she said. "It is the county's intention to return this property."

Bruce's Beach Park, the park area that is directly east of the lifeguard headquarters, is city-owned property. The city of Manhattan Beach named the park in honor of the Bruce family in 2006.

Nevertheless, Manhattan Beach faced a new awakening in the summer of 2020 about the circumstances of the Bruce family's departure. The issue of apologizing to and possibly providing reparations to the Bruce family has been a hot topic since then.

The beachfront property that the Bruce family purchased for $1,225 in 1912 is now estimated to be worth $75 million.

Bill Would Return Property to Family

When the original Bruce family land parcel, the beachfront property, was transferred from the state to the county in 1995, the state imposed restrictions that limit the county's ability to transfer the property. Therefore, transferring ownership of the property would require state action.

At the press conference, State Sen. Steven Bradford announced that he was authoring SB 796, to exempt the Bruce's Beach property from statutory restrictions on the transference and use of the land, to enable Los Angeles County to transfer the land to the descendants of the Bruce family. (Bradford serves on California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.) State Sen. Ben Allen is a joint author of the legislation, and Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi is a principal co-author.

The bill will be introduced on Monday and is written as an "urgency bill" that would require a two-thirds vote in both the California State Senate and State Assembly. The intent would be to have the bill go into effect as soon as it is passed and signed into law by the governor, preferably this year, according to its authors.

"I think if you can inherit generational wealth in this country, you should be able to inherit generational debt - and this state owes a generational debt to the African American community," said Bradford.

"The county isn't gifting anyone anything, " added L.A. County Supervisor Holly MItchell at the press conference. "The county is returning property that was inappropriately taken. We are returning to the Bruce family... property that they rightfully own."

According to Hahn, returning the land to the Bruce family could include an option for the family to lease the land back to the county. The Bruce family would be the county's landlords and the county would pay rent for the continued use of the property. However, the county would let the Bruce family decide what they want to do, said Hahn.

Bruce Family Ready to Go 'Toe to Toe'

Chief Duane "Yellow Feather" Shepard, the designated spokesperson for the Bruce family descendants, appeared at the press conference with strong words for the Manhattan Beach City Council.

Shepard referenced the resolution of  "acknowledgement and condemnation" - as opposed to an apology - that the City Council approved on Tuesday night on a vote of 4-1. He seethed at the inclusion of the word "reportedly" to describe the history of the Bruce's Beach resort, which he described as "the terrorism that happened to my family."

"The family asked me to tell the city council that when you go low, we stand toe to toe," he said. "We will not tolerate the insults that are coming from your council, and we highly suggest that you start revising your budget very soon."

Shepard continued, "We're going to stay here until the job is done. We want restoration of our land, restitution for the loss of enterprise, and punitive damages for the collusion of the institutional racism in this city that railroaded our family out of here."

City's 'Tepid' Response Draws Criticism 

In fact, the city's actions of Tuesday night drew condemnation from multiple state and local leaders on Friday. 

The city council resolution "was tepid at best," said Bradford. "It was far from a full-throated apology that this community, this state, and this nation deserve, and they clearly did not endorse what we're trying to accomplish here today."

Muratsuchi cited Reagan's 1988 apology to Japanese Americans for their internment and loss of property as an example of a proper apology granted for a historical wrong.

"President Reagan didn't have anything to do with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII; he was not talking about the United States of America being racist country; and yet he was big enough to give apology on behalf of the United States of America to all people of Japanese ancestry for the loss that they suffered during WWII," said Muratsuchi. "If President Reagan can do it, then the mayor and city council of Manhattan Beach can do it. An apology is important for not only reconciliation but for healing - for healing of the racial divisions that we're seeing not only in Manhattan Beach but across the country."

Meanwhile, former Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward, who was a driving force behind the naming of Bruce's Beach Park, extended thanks to Manhattan Beach Mayor Pro Tem Hildy Stern for being the lone holdout on Tuesday in support of an apology rather than an acknowledgement.

"I want to say to Hildy Stern, 'Thank you; your heart is as big as the Pacific Ocean," said Ward.

Ward noted that Bob Brigham, one of the original historians of Bruce's Beach, said that when he was little he would ride by the Bruce's Beach property and ask, "Mom, why is that place overrun with grass?" and his mother would respond, "Shhh... We don't talk about that." 

"Well, I'm going to talk about it because I want the world to know what we had here in 1912," said Ward. "We will get justice here in the city of Manhattan Beach. Stand by."

Business Leaders in Attendance

Also in attendance at the press conference were Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Stroman and Barsha owner Lenora Marouani. Manhattan Beach businesses have worked closely with Hahn throughout the pandemic.

The Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce has taken a lead on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues this year, offering panel discussions and forming a committee to look at this issue. Its new board chair, Latrice McGlothin, is the first woman of color to hold that position at the Manhattan Beach Chamber of Commerce.

However, the chamber does not take an official position on these issues. The chamber has released a letter to its members on Bruce’s Beach that can be seen here.

Resident Speaks Out, County Working on 'Reconciliation'

During the press conference, one resident spoke out against the idea of the transfer.

"I'm a minority. I was born in Shanghai," said Anne Marie Pearson, a resident of the Bruce's Beach area. "I've been lucky enough to live in this beautiful spot for over 50 years. I bought my property in 1981, for $58,000, and it's worth millions now. Can the owner of the property that sold me the property for $58,000 come back and ask for the property back? I mean, what is going on here? I'm a minority; I've never been discriminated against in this community, but it hurts me that the people here are trying to spoil what we have."

"I'm glad that you have had a good experience here, but this was historically a wrong," replied Hahn. "There are a lot of us here that feel it was an injustice."

Shepard pointed out that although the Bruce family was awarded $14,125 for their land in 1924, they didn't receive that money until 1927. "Essentially they left here destitute," he said. 

Shepard added, "If the Bruce family family didn't love Manhattan Beach as much as we do, we wouldn't want to come back."

On hand at the meeting was D'Artagnan Scorza, the executive director of racial equity for Los Angeles County. Scorza said that he had begun working with individuals and groups in Manhattan Beach to talk about ways to bring the community together.

"This is a moment for reconciliation," said Scorza. "This is an opportunity for this community to stand up and say 'We are all in this together, and we're going to do what's right by each other."

In an additional conversation with DigMB, Scorza added, "There's been so much tension; we need people to see each other as neighbors again."

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