California moving to return land to Black couple’s heirs

California Gov. Gavin Newsom was expected to sign a law Thursday to enable a transfer of ownership of prime beachfront property to heirs of a couple who built a resort for Black people in the early 1900s but were stripped of the land by local officials.

The legislation unanimously approved by state lawmakers this month was necessary to allow the start of the complex legal process of transferring ownership of what was once known as Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach and is currently owned by Los Angeles County.

County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who pushed for transferring the land, has said the heirs would almost certainly be millionaires now if the property had not been taken.

The property along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first West Coast resort for Black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches. It included a lodge, cafe, dance hall and dressing tents.

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White neighbors harassed the Bruces and there was an attempt to burn down the resort. Finally, the Manhattan Beach City Council used eminent domain to take the land from the Bruces in the 1920s, purportedly for use as a park.

The land lay unused for years, however, and was transferred to the state of California in 1948. In 1995 it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. That transfer came with restrictions that limited the ability to sell or transfer the property that could only be lifted through a new state law.

The property currently is the site of the county lifeguard training headquarters building along a scenic beach walkway called The Strand that is lined with luxury homes overlooking the beach and ocean.

Manhattan Beach is now an upscale Los Angeles seaside suburb. According to the city website, its population of 35,000 is more than 84% white and 0.8% Black.

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Earlier this year, the City Council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to displace the Bruces and several other Black families.

The county, meanwhile, has outlined steps needed to move forward with the transfer, including assessing the value of the parcels and trying to find a means to lessen the tax burden on the heirs.

The county also needs to vet the legal heirs of the Bruces and to possibly find a new site for the lifeguard training headquarters. One option would have the heirs lease the land back to the county for continued use.