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Newsom Signs Bruce's Beach Return Bill Into Law

Sep 30, 2021 06:45PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, a bill to return county-owned beachfront property to the Bruce family, into law in Manhattan Beach on Thursday.

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 the late 1920s through eminent domain. It was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995. 

(The property is widely - and surprisingly - being reported to be worth $70 million. Given that it is two Strand lots totaling approximately 6930 square feet, the value may be more accurately in the neighborhood of $20 million. A double Strand lot of almost exactly identical size one block north sold for $17.75 million in November 2020. The county is set to do its own appraisal as the process continues.)

Newsom was joined at the beachfront property on Thursday by supporters of the bill including bill author State Sen. Steven Bradford; Los Angeles County Supervisors Janice Hahn and Holly Mitchell; California Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi; Anthony Bruce, a descendant of the Bruce family; and Kavon Ward, an activist who led the current move to return the land to the Bruce family.

Newsom reflected on the watershed moment, as the state moved forward with one of the largest attempts at reparations to date. 

He said that despite being a "proud Californian," he was aware that the state has not always had a proud past. "I'm mindful that people came [to California] from all around the world for riches and new beginnings. .. only to discover that those same laws, the oppression, the bigotry, the hatred, the rank racism - was thriving, not just surviving here," he said.

Newsom added that the effort to return the land to the Bruce family could be "catalytic."

"What we're doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else," he said. "There's an old adage: Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form.... [This is] about economic empowerment. We're moving from symbolism to substance."

Newsom added an apparent rebuke to the Manhattan Beach City Council, which was unable to agree on an apology to the Bruce family earlier this year. "As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family."

Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern and Manhattan Beach City Councilmember Richard Montgomery were both in attendance at the bill signing event, although they were not speakers. 

"We're observing this historic event, and we're waiting to see what our role on the City Council will be," Stern told reporters at the event. (The city owns the park known as Bruce's Beach, located east of the Bruce's original property, but the park is not the subject of the legislation.)

The event was briefly disrupted by a heckler calling out Newsom. As the crowd groaned, the heckler clarified that he was bashing Newsom for "what you're doing to kids and schools," not Bruce's Beach.

Legislation Draws Support, Detractors

The county and state effort to return the land to the Bruce family has drawn support from those who say that reparations are long overdue, as well as opposition from those who say that the Bruces were fairly compensated at the time and have no further claim to the land.

Yet SB 796, introduced by Bradford and championed by Hahn, breezed through both the Calfiornia State Senate and State Assembly before reaching the governor's desk.

While there are many legal hurdles remaining, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved a plan that they say will iron out those challenges. One potential outcome would be for the Bruce family to lease back the land to the county so that it could maintain current lifeguard operations on the site.

"Now that L.A. County officially has the authority to transfer this property, my goal over the next several months will be to transfer this property in a way that not only works for the Bruce family, but is a model that other local governments can follow," said Hahn. "Returning Bruce’s Beach can and should set a precedent for this nation and I know that all eyes will be on Los Angeles County as this work gets underway.”

At the event, bill sponsor Bradford also took aim at those who argue that the transfer represents an illegal gift of public property.

"Your watch can be stolen, but when it is returned to you, nobody is gifting you, they're returning it," said Bradford. "This property was stolen from the Bruces, and we are returning what was stolen, what was rightfully theirs. It's not a gift of public funds, not a gift of property. This family owned it."

(When the eminent domain proceedings were concluded in 1929, the court granted the Bruces $14,500 for their property, although they had requested $70,000 plus $50,000 in damages, according to the city of Manhattan Beach's Bruce's Beach History Report.)

Bradford also responded to arguments that the Bruces might not have been able to maintain their successful business through a world war, the Depression, and more. 

"Many reporters have asked me, 'Do you think they could have maintained the property? Do you think they would have probably lost it by now?'" said Bradford. "I say, they had business acumen. Here's a black family in 1912 that opened up a thriving beach resort."

Bruce's Beach Activist Praised

At the event, Newsom praised Manhattan Beach resident Kavon Ward, who founded the Justice for Bruce's Beach organization, which launched the current movement to return the land to the Bruce family.

"Leaders can be found anywhere. You don't have to 'be' something to do something - it's not about title," said Newsom. "Dr King didn't spend one day in the White House except advocating for change, but he changed the world. Gandhi didn't spend a day as prime minister, but he changed the world. It's people not just in positions with formal authority - that's a privilege - it's people with moral authority that move the needle to justice."

Ward described her efforts on Bruce's Beach in terms of numbers including "Two - the number of times my life and safety were threatened; zero - the number of times Manhattan Beach Police protected me; and zero - the amount of dollars we led this fight with."

"But you can't monetize or you can't quantify the power, the strength, determination, and passion of Black women infatuated with justice," added Ward.

Former Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward (no relation to Kavon Ward), who had led a push in 2006 to name the city park Bruce's Beach Park, was also on hand at the ceremony to watch the bill signing. 

"It's a wonderful day for Black Americans and Black Californians. It's just tremendous," said former Mayor Ward. "You think about how Bob Brigham wrote about it, and how he would drive by as a youngster and ask why nothing was built on the land. I think he would be tickled pink to see this here today."

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. 

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 establishing a plaque in that location, 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.

There have been two separate paths of attempted action; one, at the county and state level with SB 796 and the proposed return of the land to the Bruces; and two, at the city level, where the city of Manhattan Beach is continuing to discuss how best to recognize its history.

After a summer of 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 Advisory Committee's report in June.

The History Advisory Committee has been working on language for two proposed plaques; one to replace the existing plaque at Bruce's Beach Park, and one to be placed on the Strand at the location of the Bruce's original property, which is now owned by the county and is home to the L.A. County Lifeguard Headquarters. The panel proposed specific language for the Strand plaque and for the Bruce's Beach Park plaque.

In July, the City Council sent the language back to the panel for additional review, prompting the resignation of one of the history panel's members.

The Bruce's Beach history panel has continued working on the language, including as recently as yesterday.

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