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Manhattan Beach City Council Adopts Bruce's Beach History Report

Jun 16, 2021 09:44AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Historical images of Charles and Willa Bruce, of beachgoers at Bruce's Beach resort, and of the former Bruce's Beach resort site. Photos via Bruce's Beach Task Force subcommittee.

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night adopted the history report of the Bruce's Beach Task Force, despite a last-minute campaign to seek additional review of the report from outside historians.

The vote was 4-1 in favor of adopting the report, with Councilmember Joe Franklin as the only dissenting vote.

Franklin - along with numerous commenters to the City Council - had called for an additional review of the report by professional historians, in addition to those historians who had already given feedback on the report.

"I just feel it can benefit from another viewpoint, someone around whom we can all agree... I don’t see the harm in having that applied in this particular situation. I think it would benefit all residents of Manhattan Beach to have that looked at," said Franklin at the meeting. "We want it correct. The people, the residents, the taxpayers of MB deserve that. We want the history taught. Who wouldn’t want the most accurate history available?"

But other council members and commenters pushed back in support of the report, noting that it had already been reviewed by professional historians. Additionally, as several pointed out, the council (before Franklin was a member) had turned down an opportunity to hire historian Allison Rose Jefferson as a consultant to the project.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Suzanne Hadley said that she felt that history could always be seen as subjective, and she was satisfied with the report as it stood.

"I dispute that more time, more money, more experts and kicking the can down the road will result in a better report," said Hadley. "It is not perfect… However, it is factual, it is documented, and it is substantiated. Everything in this document - like good science - can be verified and checked up on. This notion that we’re going to pass this off to some perfect impeccable historian… it is a myth."

All told, the City Council received more than 250 public comments on the issue.

The Bruce's Beach History Advisory Council will meet tonight (Wednesday) to discuss proposed language for the new plaque to be established at Bruce's Beach park. The City Council will review the language on July 20. 

History Subcommittee of the Bruce's Beach Task Force

The City Council approved the formation of the Bruce's Beach Task Force back in September 2020. After the task force delivered its report in March 2021, the City Council disbanded the task force, with the exception of the Bruce's Beach history subcommittee. The council agreed to let the history subcommittee continue its work because it had encountered difficulty and delays in accessing some relevant documents. 

The Bruce’s Beach history subcommittee was tasked to go through publicly available documents and sources to prepare an accurate factual synopsis of the timeline of events that occurred from when the Bruce family acquired their first property in Manhattan Beach in 1912 through the renaming of the park and installation of the Bruce’s Beach plaque in 2007.

As part of this process, the subcommittee sought to verify facts and clarify folklore surrounding the events of the complaint of condemnation proceedings in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s. The panel compared the master’s thesis of Robert L. Brigham and doctoral dissertation of Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, as well as Jefferson’s book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era” with other reports from that time, specifically newspaper articles and government records.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions and a flood at the Los Angeles Hall of Records, the subcommittee was not been able to obtain all documentation it needed to certify some claims, as noted in specific places in the report. The panel referred to the report as a “living document” and said it was dedicated to updating the report as more resources become available.

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.)

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.

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, L.A. County Supervisor Jancie 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.

Legislation giving state approval to return the beachfront parcel to Bruce family descendants (SB 796) won unanimous approval in the California State Senate earlier this month and is currently awaiting action in the California State Assembly.

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.

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