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L.A. County Supervisors Map Out Bruce's Beach Return Plan

Jul 02, 2021 12:42PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A map of the Bruce's Beach area. The parcels marked in gold are parcels that were owned by Black families in the 1920s. Willa and Charles Bruce owned parcels 8 and 9. The block marked in red (Block 5) is currently county-owned. The block marked in dark blue (Block 12) is currently owned by the city of Manhattan Beach as Bruce's Beach Park.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has released a report detailing plans for the steps it would take to return beachfront parcels of land in Manhattan Beach to descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce.

Willa and Charles Bruce owned a popular beachfront resort in Manhattan Beach for Black beach-goers in the 1920s. Under pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach then claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area. The city had claimed that it was taking the land to create a park, but the property remained vacant for decades. The parcels of land that the Bruces owned was transferred to the county in 1995.

This week's report details some of the steps that would be required to move forward with what would be an unprecedented land transfer back to Bruce family descendants.

"The county, as the current landowner, is now in the position to right this wrong and address generational inequality and anti-Black racism that occurred in the county," concluded the supervisors' report.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who helped spearhead the action and whose jurisdiction includes Manhattan Beach, expressed gratitude for the report.

"When I first realized that the county owned the property that was once Willa and Charles Bruce’s Beach Lodge, I knew that returning it to the Bruce family was the right thing to do," said Hahn in a statement. "But this is the first time a government has done anything like this and there were a lot of questions about how it would work. Now, this report outlines a clear pathway forward for us to transfer this land and addresses everything from identifying the rightful descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce, to the ongoing Lifeguard operations at the site, to mitigating the tax burden for the Bruce family."

Hahn continued: "I am committed to getting this done and setting an example for governments nationwide for how we can begin to right the historic injustices committed against African Americans in this country.”

Steps Moving Forward

The report addresses: 

1. A proposed timeline and steps required to transfer the parcels of land originally owned by the Bruce family or equivalent parcels in the portion of land within Manhattan State Beach to the descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce;
2. Options to address property tax issues associated with transfer of the property;
3. Continued county occupancy of the site following transfer, or a plan to relocate county facilities; and
4. Appropriate safeguards to ensure that the property is transferred to descendants of the Bruce family, including an opportunity for descendants to come forward and the possibility of naming a third-party trustee to oversee claims of ownership in the property, restoration of title, and other necessary procedural steps.

Any county action moving forward would contingent on passage of SB 786, a state bill that would enable the county to return the land to the Bruce family. The bill was unanimously approved by the California State Senate and is currently awaiting action in the California State Assembly.

Furthermore, if the bill wins approval and signed into law, there are still legal and procedural hurdles involved in moving forward. For example, the property is currently zoned for "public facilities" and is located in the coastal zone. Any zoning change would require the approval of both the city of Manhattan Beach and the Coastal Commission.

The county reports that its next steps would include a land assessment, including an appraisal of all parcels located in the county-owned Block 5 (the red block in the illustration above). The plan is also to make a determination of whether there are equivalent parcels in Block 5 without a structure on them that would be suitable for transfer.

The county will then pursue discussions with the Los Angeles County Assessor to determine ways to mitigate the potential tax burden on the Bruce family.

It will also explore the feasibility of relocating the Los Angeles County Fire Department/Lifeguard operations currently at the structure on the site, versus having the Bruce family lease the property back to the county. 

Finally, the county will begin a process of conducting a thorough and equitable legal heir determination process. It would most likely retain a third-party administrator to manage the  process of determining the heirs.

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. 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; the city adopted the history subcommittee's report last month.

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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