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Manhattan Beach City Council Votes for Apology for Bruce's Beach

Apr 05, 2023 09:56AM ● 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 has approved "a resolution of apology for city’s role in the racially motivated condemnation of properties at Bruce’s Beach" in the 1920s.

“The adoption of this resolution is an important step to formally apologize to the Bruces, Pattersons, Prioleaus, Sanders, and Johnsons for the racially motivated eminent domain action committed by the City, as well as the other Black property owners and visitors to the beach who experienced harassment and racial discrimination nearly 100 years ago,” said Mayor Richard Montgomery in a statement. “What happened was wrong and the apology was long overdue. We must continue to work towards a more just and equitable community standing up against hate, and this resolution is a meaningful step in that direction.”

The measure won approval on a vote of 4-1, with Mayor Richard Montgomery and councilmembers Amy Howorth, David Lesser, and Steve Napolitano voting "yes." Mayor Pro Tem Joe Franklin was the lone "no" vote.

The issue of Manhattan Beach not previously having offered an "apology" has been a sore point in the city.

While the descendants of the families had asked for an apology - and the city's Bruce's Beach Task Force and other residents and activists had called for one - some councilmembers and residents had expressed concerns that making an apology would expose the city to liability.

Back in April 2021, the Manhattan Beach City Council (comprised of different members at the time) considered three different resolutions, two of which contained an "apology." Nevertheless, the council was only able to get agreement on, and ultimately voted 4-1, in support of an "acknowledgement and condemnation" of the 1920s eminent domain action.

But last month, at an unveiling ceremony for the city's new plaque at Bruce's Beach Park, the issue appeared to reach a turning point when then-Mayor Steve Napolitano publicly offered his own apology to the Bruce family and others.

Subsequently, at the March 23 City Council meeting, Lesser made a motion for the City Council to consider the resolution of apology that Napolitano had originally drafted in April 2021.

The resolution also contains the text of the city's "Stand Up" resolution against hate, prejudice, violence, and bullying.

Liability Issues Discussed

Former Mayor Hildy Stern, who had been one of the leaders in calling for an apology in 2021, appeared at Tuesday night's meeting to thank the council for bringing the issue back. 

She told Napolitano that his public apology last month was a "turning point for our city."

Howorth concurred: "His [Napolitano's] comments shifted the community and signaled to all of us that it was time [for an apology] - in fact it was incumbent upon us to do so," she said. "I think all of us have grown a lot, have learned a lot in the last several years. This is the right thing to do."

City Attorney Quinn Barrow said that he and his team could not find any litigation based on other cities' apologies for past actions. He also confirmed that the city is not currently facing a lawsuit based on the apology.

(*Editor's note: The cities of Glendale, CA; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Tampa, Florida (see page 1032 of this link for the actual resolution) have all issued resolutions apologizing for discriminatory racial practices of the past.)

Yet Franklin said that he believed that a threat of litigation was real. "I stand by every word I spoke on April 6, 2021," he said. "We can’t paint an entire city with racism. Yes there was harassment by some of the residents, yes there were bad acts by some of the residents, yes there were immoral acts by some on the [then] City Council, but no resident living in Manhattan Beach now is responsible for the racist actions 100 years ago."

Franklin cited two stories (one from the Los Angeles Times and one from the New York Times) in which an activist and also a representative from the family said that Manhattan Beach still had "a debt to pay." He added, "I’m personally sorry about what happened to the Bruces and other families who made Manhattan Beach their home...but the issue of liability looms over our actions today and cannot be easily or lightly dismissed in the tenuous and litigious environment in which we find ourselves."

Napolitano shot back: "There is no issue of liability. I’m sorry. That’s nonsense. There’s been nothing shown of that. The city attorney has been clear."

Napolitano continued: "I made a prediction in 2021 that a future council would adopt an apology, and I couldn’t be more proud of this council that’s going to do that now. Not because it’s woke, not because it’s performative, but because it’s the right thing to do - finally. Let’s do the right thing."

The city now has one last piece of unfinished business at Bruce's Beach Park: a redesigned garden to surround its new plaque, along with a sculptural art piece.

The total budget for the artwork is $350,000, which comes from the city's Public Art Trust Fund, a 1% fee levied on developers that is earmarked specifically for public art and is not part of the city's general fund. The deadline for proposals for that art project has been extended to April 23, 2023.

Bruce's Beach Background and Coverage

Manhattan Beach News has covered Bruce's Beach extensively, beginning with a 2019 obituary of early Bruce's Beach historian Bob Brigham. Links to additional stories are below.

Since 2020, the city of Manhattan Beach has engaged in an emotional debate over how - or how much - to recognize Willa and Charles Bruce, pioneering Black business owners who created a thriving resort for Black beach-goers in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s.

By the mid-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, condemning the lots and displacing the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area. (Of the 30 lots condemned, five were owned by five Black families and had been developed with cottages, homes, or, in the Bruces’ case, a two-story building for their business; and the remaining 25 lots were owned by White property owners that had no structures built upon them and were uninhabited.)

The land was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995. The beachfront property the Bruce family once owned is now the site of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Training Headquarters.

At this point, the story split into two different threads - the L.A. County thread (the beachfront property), and the Manhattan Beach thread (Bruce's Beach Park and the issue of an apology).

On the L.A. County side, the effort led by Los Angeles County leaders to return the beachfront land to the Bruce family reached a significant milestone in September 2021 when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, a bill permitting the return of the county-owned beachfront property to the Bruce family, into law. L.A. County officials handed over the deed to the property to the descendants of the Bruce family in July 2022.

L.A. County Supervisor with the County-designed Bruce's Beach plaque on the Strand in Manhattan Beach. Photo via Janice Hahn.

The county also created a plaque on the Strand that details the history of the beachfront property. Nevertheless, the Bruce family in 2023 sold the property back to L.A. County for $20 million.

Meanwhile, within Manhattan Beach, it was not until 2006 that the city 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 (park) location. In the summer of 2020, a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

Despite creating a Bruce's Beach Task Force and adopting a history report created by the task force, the Manhattan Beach City Council struggled for nearly a year with finding compromise on the wording, location, and style for a new marker honoring Bruce's Beach Park and the Bruce family.

The City Council approved the plaque language on March 10, 2022 and the plaque design on April 19, 2022. The city unveiled the new plaque on March 18, 2023. The council has also approved $350,000 for a sculptural art project to accompany the plaque at Bruce's Beach Park.

Regarding activities in Bruce's Beach Park, in March 2022, the City Council reaffirmed its policy disallowing special event permits at Bruce's Beach Park, going against a recommendation of the city's Parks and Rec Commission. Councilmembers voted 4-1 to uphold the current special events policy that excludes Bruce's Beach Park as well as Larsson Parkette and 8th Street Parkette from the permitting process.

Although a "Juneteenth" celebration in 2021 had brought large crowds to Bruce's Beach, Juneteenth 2022 was a relatively quiet day at Bruce's Beach Park, with just a scattering of families enjoying picnics and with city-contracted security staff on hand.

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