A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (2022)

On a recent morning, Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, sat on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, steps away from one of southern California’s most pristine beaches.

To visitors from around the world, it’s an idyllic stretch of coastline and a prime surfing spot. To Shepard, it’s the site that conceals a painful history.

His family’s ancestors – Willa and Charles Bruce – bought the land at the bottom of the hill in 1912 and built a resort run for and by Black residents. Despite harassment and violence from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, the couple’s enterprise endured, providing rare California beach access for African Americans.

Then, in 1924, city officials condemned the neighborhood and moved to seize the property. The local council said it needed the plot for a park, but instead left it vacant for decades.

“They were terrorized and left destitute,” said Shepard, as joggers ran along the beach in front of him and surfers made their way to the water. “We want back what belongs to us.”

A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (1)

There’s now a concerted effort to make that transfer a reality, nearly 100 years after the seizure. Last week, LA county officials announced an unprecedented legislative push to return the valuable property to the descendants of Willa and Charles, which would grant them the wealth they have been denied for generations.

“This is a reckoning that has been long overdue,” Anthony Bruce, a 38-year-old great-great-grandson said in a phone interview this week from Florida, where he lives. “For me and the generations after, this would mean an inheritance – and that internal security of knowing that I come from somewhere, that I come from a people.”

But in Manhattan Beach, which is less than 1% Black today, righting these historical wrongs is proving to be an uphill battle.

(Video) Bruce’s Beach Returned To Black Family Years After City Seizure

‘They covered up this history’

Willa Bruce bought their first plot of land by the ocean for $1,225. The LA Times reported in 1912 on the “great agitation” and “opposition” of white property owners, saying she “created a storm … by establishing a seaside resort for her race”.

Willa told the paper: “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (2)

The area, which became known as Bruce’s Beach among African Americans, was one of a number of Black leisure spots that were formed in the region at that time.

“African Americans were establishing themselves, because they wanted to enjoy southern California’s offerings,” said Dr Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and the author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. “Having a place by the beach is a quintessential part of what the California dream is.”

But hate crimes and threats escalated against the Bruces. The KKK started a fire under a main deck, and Black visitors were forced to walk half a mile to reach the beach due to roadblocks set up at the adjacent property of George Peck, a wealthy landowner and developer, according to the LA Times.

In 1924, the city, which by then was called Manhattan Beach, condemned the Bruces’ land and other adjacent homes owned by Black residents, using eminent domain, with the stated goal of building a park. After years of litigation, the Bruces, who had sought $120,000, were given $14,000. And while a judge said they had the right to move back to Manhattan Beach, they couldn’t afford anything after they had lost their wealth and feared the KKK if they returned, said Shepard.

“They were poor and totally devastated,” said Shepard, noting that they moved to the east side of LA and spent the rest of their lives working as cooks in other people’s diners. Willa died five years later.

“Learning that a hate crime was committed against my family, it was jarring,” said Anthony Bruce, recalling his first visit to the site of their stolen land in the 80s when he was five. “It felt personal, like it was an attack against me.”

(Video) LA County transfers Bruce's Beach to Black family who owned property in 1920s

Today, the Bruces’ property is worth millions.

Anthony’s grandfather, Bernard Bruce, the grandson of Willa and Charles, grew up distraught about this history: “He was obsessed about it, because he knew how much it was worth. He was trying to get that land back for almost his entire life,” Anthony said.

A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (3)

Bernard made progress in 2006 when, with help from the city’s first Black councilman, officials renamed a nearby park Bruce’s Beach and put up a plaque honoring Willa and Charles. But the plaque excludes any mention of the KKK and harassment, and presents George Peck, considered a co-founder of Manhattan Beach, as a benevolent neighbor, who “made it possible” for the Bruces to run a beach for Black residents.

“George Peck was not the white savior of the Black people to allow this community to begin,” said Jefferson. “It misrepresents what happened.”

Standing by the plaque, Shepard said: “It doesn’t belong here with those lies on it.” He noted that the Bruces should be considered founders of Manhattan Beach just as much as Peck, adding, “Manhattan Beach covered up this history for 80 years. This was by design.”

The uprisings after the killing of George Floyd last year gave the Bruces and their supporters new momentum. But the progress is coming too late for Bernard, who died of Covid-19 in January at age 86.

‘So many generations were wronged’

The park now known as Bruce’s Beach is located on a hill just above the land that once housed the family’s resort. That property is now a bland building owned by LA county and used as a lifeguard training headquarters.

Last Friday, LA and state legislators stood outside it to unveil a new state bill that would remove restrictions on the property and allow the county to return it to the Bruces.

(Video) LA County may return beachfront property that was seized from a Black family nearly a century ago

A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (4)

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I’m embarrassed, to be honest, that I did not know this story until last year,” Janice Hahn, the LA county supervisor leading the legislative effort, told the Guardian. “I grew up learning to swim in the ocean a few blocks from what was Bruce’s Beach … So when I finally heard this story, I felt there was nothing else I could do but figure out how to return this property.”

One possible plan is to give ownership of the property back to the family, who could then lease it back to the county, said Shepard, who is a cousin of the direct descendants.

The impact of the loss of generational wealth is difficult to calculate, but Shepard said the majority of Bruces today live under the poverty line, noting a great-great-grandson who can’t afford to own a car and still walks to work: “It’s hit them very hard – there are student loans they could have paid off, there are mortgages they might not even have had. They would have been multimillionaires.”

“All of these generations have been wronged,” said Anthony. “This will affect my children and their children’s children … And I want them to know that they can receive justice from their government.”

If successful, Hahn said she hoped it would be a model for returning land, including for Japanese Americans whose property was taken during the second world war, and Native Americans.

There are thousands of Black families who have suffered like the Bruces, Jefferson noted, including farmers pushed off of their land and homeowners whose neighborhoods were seized for freeways.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Shepard, who is also indigenous and a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

‘Black people are still unwelcome’

While LA county and state leaders are pushing ahead, not all in the region have been supportive.

(Video) California land taken from Black couple returned

Last week, the Manhattan Beach city council, the same entity that took their land a century ago, voted to oppose a symbolic proclamation to apologize to the Bruces, citing concerns it would make the city liable for future lawsuits.

Meanwhile, an anonymous group of residents has run full-page ads in a local paper arguing that a “woke mob” had exaggerated the history of racism at Bruce’s Beach and urging the council not to apologize.

A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back (5)

It’s all been a reminder, advocates say, of how racism has persisted in this waterfront community.

“That says they don’t even regard Black people as people,” said Kavon Ward, a Black resident of Manhattan Beach who last year founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach to advocate for the land to be returned. She said she had experienced racism since moving to the city four years ago, including being asked by a white resident which family she was nannying for.

“I’ve heard so many stories of Black people who grew up here and are still scarred. They say they will never step foot again here, because they feel they are not welcome, especially the closer you get to the water.”

Black surfers have also spoken about racism at Manhattan Beach, where they say white surfers have harassed them and called them racist slurs.

On a recent morning, Tagus Ashford stopped by the plaque to take a photo after learning about Bruce’s Beach in the news. The Black Oklahoma City resident, who was in town visiting family, said he was not surprised to learn of the pushback.

“People get uncomfortable when people start to claim what is theirs, especially when it was stolen or ill-gotten. But it’s important for people to claim their ancestral rights,” he said, adding that the ongoing racial tensions in Manhattan Beach were palpable to him as soon as he arrived: “You can feel it in the air.”

Shepard said he was appalled by the city’s refusal to even say sorry and that his family would be pushing for restitution and damages from Manhattan Beach, beyond getting the property back from the county.

(Video) How a California beachfront property now worth millions was taken from its Black owners

“We’re still suffering for what their ancestors did. Somebody needs to rectify this injustice,” he said. “They’re still benefiting from the generational wealth of their ancestors while we don’t have a dime coming in.”

  • This article was amended on 19 April 2021 to clarify that the county does not yet have an estimate for the current value of the Bruces’ property.

FAQs

Was Bruces beach returned to family? ›

Beach taken from Black couple given back to family 100 years later: 'We are returning stolen land' Nearly 100 years after a Black couple was racially harassed and stripped of their California oceanfront resort, Los Angeles County officials on Wednesday gave the land back to their descendants.

Why was Bruces beach seized? ›

The oceanfront park in Manhattan Beach was renamed Bruce's Beach in 2006 for the couple who owned the property in the 1920s, turning it into resort catering to the Black community. The property was seized from the Bruce family as the result of a racist campaign spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan.

What will the Bruce family do with Bruces beach? ›

On July 20, 2022, the L.A County Board of Supervisors officially returned Bruce's Beach to the legal heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce. The County will now rent the property and maintain a lifeguard facility.

How much did the city pay for Bruces beach? ›

The Bruces fought to keep their property through litigation, but they failed and lost their business. The city of Manhattan Beach paid them $14,500, and kept the land until it was transferred in 1948 to the state, which transferred it to Los Angeles County in 1955.

How much did the Bruce family get for their land? ›

The city of Manhattan Beach paid Charles and Willa Bruce $14,500 for their property at the time they seized it, according to the Times. In a ceremony on July 20, 2022, Charles and Willa's great-great grandsons accepted the title for the property, which they plan to lease back to Los Angeles County for $413,000 a year.

Who owns Bruces beach now? ›

LA County Officially Returns Ownership of Bruce's Beach Resort To Heirs of Black Family. The heirs of Charles and Willa Bruce have officially secured ownership of Bruce's Beach, a successful resort that was stripped from the Black couple nearly 100 years ago.

What will happen to Bruces beach now? ›

But this is a start, and it is the right thing to do.” The property will now enter escrow before officially transferring to the Bruce family. After it's transferred, the county has agreed to rent the property from the Bruces for $413,000 a year and will maintain its lifeguard facility there.

How much land is Bruces beach? ›

Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom fulfilled Ward's wish, by signing a law authorizing Los Angeles County to return the three-acre property to the Bruce family after nearly a century—a first in United States history.

Who inherited Bruces beach? ›

And after a 30-day closing period, Marcus and Derrick Bruce, great-grandsons of proprietors Willa and Charles Bruce, will finally inherit the 7,000 square-feet of beachfront property, valued at $20 million.

What size is Bruces beach? ›

What happened: Bruce's Beach — 7,000 square feet of prime real estate — had been a resort where Black people gathered and enjoyed the beach in the segregated L.A. County of the early 20th century.

How many square feet is Bruces beach? ›

Located just north of downtown Manhattan Beach, the two parcels together span roughly 7,000 square feet. A clause within the agreement stipulates that Derrick and Marcus Bruce can sell their land to the county further down the line with the caveat that the sale cannot exceed $20 million.

How much is the Bruce property worth? ›

"And we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago. But this is a start." As part of the deal, the property, which is worth an estimated $20 million dollars, will be rented out to the county for $413,000 a year.

Who owned the beach? ›

Under common law, the states own the portion of the beaches that lies between low and high water marks; the so-called "wet sand" is thus open to anyone. But it has never been made clear whether a person has the right to cross private property to gain access to that public land.

Where is my land kavon Ward? ›

Kavon is a reparative justice consultant and Co-founder of Where Is My Land, an organization focused on getting Black land back nationally. She is a former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) fellow and public policy activist. Kavon holds a BA in Communications and a Masters of Public Administration.

Who is Anthony Bruce? ›

Anthony Bruce is an investor in early- and mid-stage software companies, a senior management advisor on growth and technology, and an expert in Big Data. Mr. Bruce was CEO and a co-founder of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT) sold to Mastercard in May, 2015.

Where is My land founder? ›

Thankfully, two determined Black women—Kavon Ward and Ashanti Martin—refused to wait any longer and instead took action. They co-founded “Where is My Land” (WIML) to help Black Americans across the country reclaim stolen land and secure restitution.

How old is Bruce beach? ›

A young and ambitious married couple, Willa and Charles Bruce, purchased some of the land that makes up Bruce's Beach in 1912. They added three lots to the original land and soon set to work, establishing a resort that was open to all African Americans.

Who is Charles Bruce? ›

Charles Bruce was one of Canada's most respected journalists and is also distinguished for his regional poetry and prose, characterized by concrete imagery and direct language.

How tall is the Manhattan Beach Pier? ›

928 feet

Who are the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce? ›

It was confirmed that Marcus and Derrick Bruce are the legal heirs of the property. “At long last, the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce will be able to begin rebuilding the wealth that has been denied to generations of Bruce's since their property was seized nearly a century ago,” said Hahn.

What happened to Willa and Charles Bruce? ›

Willa and Charles Bruce did, indeed, fight — but to no avail. A court injunction forced the couple to sell their property to the city for $14,000 US, a fraction of the land's $70,000 US value at the time. The family — along with many other Black residents — left the area.

Who are the descendants of Bruces beach? ›

With an arduous, legally complex process complete, the land will go back to the descendants of beach lodge owners Willa and Charles Bruce. After a 30-day closing period, the Bruces' great-grandsons, Marcus and Derrick Bruce, will own the 7,000 square-foot property, valued at $20 million.

What will happen to Bruces beach now? ›

But this is a start, and it is the right thing to do.” The property will now enter escrow before officially transferring to the Bruce family. After it's transferred, the county has agreed to rent the property from the Bruces for $413,000 a year and will maintain its lifeguard facility there.

How much is Bruces beach in California worth? ›

Willa and Charles Bruce bought the two lots of land for $1,225 in 1912. The beach is now worth an estimated $20m (£16.45m).

How much land is Bruces beach? ›

Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom fulfilled Ward's wish, by signing a law authorizing Los Angeles County to return the three-acre property to the Bruce family after nearly a century—a first in United States history.

How many square feet is Bruces beach? ›

Located just north of downtown Manhattan Beach, the two parcels together span roughly 7,000 square feet. A clause within the agreement stipulates that Derrick and Marcus Bruce can sell their land to the county further down the line with the caveat that the sale cannot exceed $20 million.

Who is Anthony Bruce? ›

Anthony Bruce is an investor in early- and mid-stage software companies, a senior management advisor on growth and technology, and an expert in Big Data. Mr. Bruce was CEO and a co-founder of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT) sold to Mastercard in May, 2015.

How big is Bruces beach California? ›

On the three acres of open green, one can find many shade trees, benches, a basketball half-court. But that's not all there is to this popular ocean-side retreat. Those who visit Bruce's Beach may be surprised to learn that it is actually Manhattan Beach's oldest park site, and has a rich history.

How much is the Bruce property worth? ›

"And we will never be able to make up for the injustice that was done to Willa and Charles Bruce a century ago. But this is a start." As part of the deal, the property, which is worth an estimated $20 million dollars, will be rented out to the county for $413,000 a year.

Where is My land founder? ›

Thankfully, two determined Black women—Kavon Ward and Ashanti Martin—refused to wait any longer and instead took action. They co-founded “Where is My Land” (WIML) to help Black Americans across the country reclaim stolen land and secure restitution.

Where is my land kavon Ward? ›

Kavon is a reparative justice consultant and Co-founder of Where Is My Land, an organization focused on getting Black land back nationally. She is a former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) fellow and public policy activist. Kavon holds a BA in Communications and a Masters of Public Administration.

What happened to Willa and Charles Bruce? ›

Willa and Charles Bruce did, indeed, fight — but to no avail. A court injunction forced the couple to sell their property to the city for $14,000 US, a fraction of the land's $70,000 US value at the time. The family — along with many other Black residents — left the area.

Videos

1. Bruce's Beach returned to family nearly a century after seizure
(Global News)
2. Campaign to return Bruce’s Beach back to family
(FOX 11 Los Angeles)
3. Bruce’s Beach Family Speaks Out After LA Returns Seized Property
(TODAY)
4. Beachfront Returned To Black Family 98 Years After Officials Seized It
(TODAY)
5. L.A. County plans to return Bruce's Beach property back to family
(CBS Los Angeles)
6. Bruce's Beach descendants speak out as they await return of seized land
(CBS News)

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