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State Senate Unanimously Approves Bill To Return Bruce's Beach to Family

Jun 03, 2021 09:48AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A sign describing the proposed return of beachfront property to the Bruce family, as seen at an April 9 press conference in Manhattan Beach.

SB 796, a bill that would allow for the return of beachfront property in Manhattan Beach to the Bruce family, has won unanimous support in the California State Senate. It now goes to the state Assembly.

The legislation, approved on a 38-0 vote, would remove state restrictions on Los Angeles County-owned beachfront property in Manhattan Beach once owned by Willa and Charles Bruce that limit the county's ability to transfer the property.

“I want to thank our state senators who voted for this important legislation and have supported Los Angeles County’s effort to return the Bruce’s Beach property to the Bruce family nearly a century after it was stolen from them," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, a leader in the effort to return the property to the Bruce family. "It is my hope that once this legislation is signed into law, Los Angeles County can set an historic precedent for how we as a nation should go about beginning to atone for the sins of our past.”

SB 796 still needs to pass the State Assembly and be signed into law by Governor Newsom.

If it becomes law, Hahn has vowed to move forward with a county effort to return the property to the surviving descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

Bruce's Beach Background

The story of Bruce's Beach dates back to the early 1900s, when Charles and Willa Bruce built a popular Black beach resort in Manhattan Beach. The property was one of the very few beaches where Black residents could go, because most other Southern California beaches were off-limits to people of color. 

By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area.

(Some residents have raised the issue that landowners of both races had their properties taken via eminent domain during this transaction. However, as Manhattan Beach City Councilmember Steve Napolitano pointed out during the Manhattan Beach City Council's April 6 meeting, "It’s not about the condemnation; they got paid for it. It’s about the racial motivation behind it. If it was just about condemnation, we wouldn’t be here at all." Furthermore, the Bruces were the only property owners who were running a successful business on their land.)

The city had claimed that it was taking the land to create a park, but the property remained vacant for decades.

In 1948, the beachfront property once owned by the Bruce family was transferred to the state, with conditions. In 1995, L.A. County accepted control of Bruce’s Beach and other lands from the state.

It was not until 2006 that the city of Manhattan Beach publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area east of the beachfront property Bruce's Beach Park, and it was not until the summer of 2020 that a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

After a summer of racial unrest and controversy surrounding the history of Bruce's Beach, the Manhattan Beach City Council agreed to form a task force to look at new ways to recognize and commemorate Bruce's Beach Park. The task force was disbanded after it delivered its report in March (with the exception of the history subcommittee, which is still waiting to access certain documents that have been delayed).

The Bruce's Beach task force had called for an official resolution of apology from the city of Manhattan Beach. After much discussion over several options, the city voted in early April for a "resolution of acknowledgement and condemnation" rather than an apology.

Meanwhile, Hahn and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors have proposed returning the two original parcels of beachfront property that the Bruce family once owned to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. Those beachfront parcels are immediately west of Bruce's Beach Park and are currently the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard training headquarters.

Bruce family representatives have not yet said what their plans would be for the property if it were to be returned to them. Hahn has suggested that she would be open to having the Bruce family lease it back to the county for the lifeguard headquarters in exchange for fair market rent.

The action comes at a time when reparations are a hot topic of discussion around the country. The idea of reparations for slavery has been particularly divisive, with one national survey showing that only one in 10 white respondents supported the idea while half of Black respondents endorsed it.

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