How Bruce's Beach Was Stolen From The Black Family That Owned It — And How They Got It Back
For Black Angelenos in the early 1900s, "a day at the beach" often meant a day at Bruce's Beach. They would wake up early, catch a Red Car and ride it to the South Bay. Situated between 26th and 27th Streets, their destination was a slice of paradise. Owners Charles and Willa Bruce made sure guests had everything they needed — bathing suits for rent, changing rooms, towels, snacks.
After a day of surf and sun, guests could head inside to a two-story recreation center to sip a cold soda and dance the Foxtrot or the Charleston while a live band performed. Later in the evening, patrons would rush to catch the last Red Car, arriving home with sand between their toes and happy memories.
For a decade and a half, Bruce's Beach was one of the few places where people of color felt free to enjoy Southern California's spectacular coast. But in 1927, that ended. With the help of the KKK, racist real estate agents and bigoted white residents, the fledgling city of Manhattan Beach took the land away from the Bruces. Officials claimed they wanted to build a public park on the spot but the land lay undeveloped for decades.
It has taken nearly a century for the state of California to acknowledge this injustice. On September 30, 2021, a crowd gathered in Manhattan Beach to watch Governor Gavin Newsom sign SB 797 into law. The bill returns Bruce's Beach (now estimated to be worth around $75 million) to Willa and Charles Bruce's descendants.
"We're elated," says family member and spokesperson Chief Duane "Yellow Feather" Shepard. "We're very happy about the outcome. The people of California have unanimously spoken. You know, they say that they're no longer tolerating racism and coverups, misogyny and patriarchy in this state. And they did the right thing by making us whole."
It started with an entrepreneurial vision. Willa and Charles Bruce, originally from the East, moved to Southern California from Albuquerque around 1912, with their son Harvey. According to Shepard, Charles was a longtime employ of the Pullman Company, a job that offered good wages and steady employment along with a chance to see the U.S. Willa had probably been a cook.
In 1912, the Bruces purchased oceanfront property in sleepy Manhattan Beach, which had just incorporated that year. "I would figure that they probably just were hardworking people and put their money together and decided to move to Los Angeles where there were more opportunities for them, and probably cooler weather than in Albuquerque," Shepard says.
While Charles continued to work on Pullman railcars, Willa opened a portable cottage on the seashore. She rented bathing suits and offered refreshments and changing rooms to people of color. From the start, racists harassed Bruce's patrons and attempted to block them from the beach, according to the 2021 History Advisory Board Report, commissioned by the city of Manhattan Beach.
Beachgoers were "confronted by two deputy constables who warned them against crossing the strip of land in front of Mrs. Bruce's property to reach the ocean," reports a June 27, 1912 story in the Los Angeles Times.
Despite the persecution, the Bruces' resort thrived. It eventually expanded to include a bath house, kitchen and large dance floor. Over the next few years, other Black families, including the Prioleaus, the Pattersons, the Sanders and the Slaughters, bought nearby lots, forming a safe nucleus for Black beachside recreation.
"You would take the Red Car down... and spend a day on the beautiful beach or rent a room, if you desired. Sundays were reserved for school gatherings and families, and the resort offered a getaway overlooking the Pacific Ocean," Miriam Matthews, L.A.'s first Black librarian, wrote in an essay quoted by the 2021 History Advisory Board Report. "If one tired of the sand and surf, the parlor was available for listening to music or dancing."
The 1920s saw a Southern California real estate boom and, with it, a rise in discriminatory policies, including overt segregation and restrictive covenants. It was an unseemly merger of greed and racist ideology.
Manhattan Beach newcomer George Lindsey, a real estate agent, was "worried" about the effect the Back colony had on land prices. As a way to get rid of Black homeowners, he proposed taking advantage of a loophole in the 1909 Park and Playground Act, which stipulated that the government could condemn private land for civic use.
This proposal — to tear down the resort's building and erect a park in its place — awakened the wolves.
1924 saw reports of local KKK members patrolling Manhattan Beach's shore and harassing the Bruces, according to Cecilia Rasmussen of the Los Angeles Times. The greatest blow came that year, when Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees passed Ordinance 282. According to the History Advisory Board Report, this ordinance approved legal proceedings for "acquisition by condemnation for public park purposes" of land owned by the Bruces. Local officials also targeted other Black landowners.
The Bruces and their neighbors responded legally that the city's obvious intention was:
"...to banish them [the Black property owners] from the said City, and, more particularly, from that portion of the said City which is nearly contiguous to the Pacific Ocean, and this in order to entirely free the said City from their presence because of the fact that they are Negroes, and that these defendants allege that the said proceedings are arbitrary, oppressive and inspired by Racial Prejudice."
The condemnation battle was followed closely by both white and Black media, including the legendary Charlotta Bass, publisher and editor of The California Eagle. "This is not the Bruce's [sic] fight. It is a fight for all the people," she wrote.
The Bruces requested $70,000 for their property and $50,000 for damages from the city. They were offered $14,500. In May of 1927, after three years of legal battles and discimination, they were forced to give up their business. They announced a "Bruce's Beach Closing Out Party" for May 30, 1927. It is unclear if the Bruces ever held that party.
A Hurricane Of Hate
Willa and Charles left Manhattan Beach and bought a home in Los Angeles. City officials soon tore down the two-story clubhouse at Bruce's Beach although they waited until the 1950s to build a park on the property. But racist residents of the South Bay weren't done harassing their Black neighbors. The Slaughter family, who had opened a large boarding house catering to Black beachgoers, became the target of local police and the KKK.
On July 4, 1927, UCLA student Elizabeth Cattley, a guest at the Slaughters' boarding house, was arrested for trespassing on a white neighbor's land and thrown in jail, wearing only her bathing suit. Two weeks later, swimmers Dr. H.C. Hudson, John McCaskill, J.H. Conley and Romalious Johnson were arrested and charged with trespassing on land owned by O. Bessonette.
The four men were tried in Manhattan Beach City Hall, found guilty and fined $100 each. The KKK stepped up their intimidation tactics, attempting to set the Slaughters' home on fire and burning a cross near their property. By 1930, the Slaughters had also lost their land.
The Bruces, now elderly, were devastated by their treatment. "They used most of the fortune they had amassed from running the resort there on the beach to fight the condemnation and the eminent domain procedures," Shepard says.
To add insult to injury, the city didn't award the Bruces their settlement money until 1932, a year after Charles died. Willa died two years later, in 1934.
According to Shepard, his family rarely spoke of their lost birthright.
"They didn't talk about that very much. It's very, very traumatic, especially the terrorism that they suffered at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and the Manhattan Beach City Council. I did ride through there one time when I was about six, seven years old. My mother pointed out a raggedy vacant lot and said that it used to be Bruce family property," Shepard says.
The Bruces weren't the only ones who pushed aside the memory of their stolen land. For the rest of the 20th Century, few people spoke of the lost Black colony of Manhattan Beach. It wasn't featured in any official history of the city. Then, in the early 2000s, the conversation restarted.
The Tide Turns
After Mitch Ward became the first Black city council member (and later mayor) in overwhelmingly white Manhattan Beach, he spearheaded efforts to rename Parque Culiacan, where the Bruces' business once stood, Bruce's Beach. Despite some community backlash, the name was changed in 2006. For many people, this symbolic action wasn't enough.
When Kavon Ward moved to Manhattan Beach in the 2010s, she was shocked by the prejudice she encountered, which included being asked, repeatedly, if she was a nanny. "This is the type of stuff that I had been experiencing for some time. And so, when I learned about the Bruces, I was like, 'Okay, of course this happened here,'" Ward says.
Ward founded Justice For Bruce's Beach and began to advocate for the return of the beachfront property to the Bruces' descendants. She describes visiting Bruce's Beach:
"I have mixed emotions when I'm there. When I'm looking straight ahead at the water and I am feeling that breeze, and I'm listening to the waves crash on the shore, I feel amazing and tranquil. But then I look and see that there's no one who looks like me there. And then I look at the homes surrounding the park. I get angry. Because this could have been the Bruces'. It could have been all these other black people's who bought in that community, and had it stripped away from them."
According to Ward, her fight for reparations, which included a 2020 celebration on Juneteenth, was met with hostility by some Manhattan Beach residents.
"The resistance to justice and equality is real. I find that there's a small percentage of white people in Manhattan Beach who are very, very, very extremely supportive," she says.
One of these people is Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who had learned to swim at El Porto Beach just a few blocks away.
"I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know the story of Bruce's Beach until very recently," Hahn says. "It was not until the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and the Justice for Bruce's Beach demonstrations that I began to understand the history and the injustice of what happened. And it was not until my staff and I got a plot map of the area that I realized the property the Bruces owned was now owned by the county and I had the ability to do something about it. I decided then and there that if I had the power to return the land to the Bruces, that is what I would do."
Hahn knew that restoring the land to the Bruce descendants would be tricky.
"We realized pretty quickly that I could not give the land back on my own. The State had transferred the property to the County in the 1990s and had left strings attached to the land. The County is barred from transferring the property. I knew that if I was ever going to be able to give the land back, I would need a change in the state law. I called my friend Senator Steven Bradford and asked if he could introduce legislation to remove those restrictions on the property," Hahn says.
In February 2021, he introduced the legislation and last month, on September 8, the California Senate unanimously passed SB 796, which gave the state permission to deed the land back to the Bruce family.
"I'm happy. I'm ecstatic. I am in disbelief, as well, because it really happened so quickly," Ward says.
The Bruce family has been pleased with the coverage the issue has received. "People have been overwhelmingly supportive of us getting justice," Shepard says. But returning the land is only the first step in righting a historic wrong.
SB 796 allows the Bruces' descendants to do what they like with property. They currently have no plans to build on it and will lease the lifeguard training center on the property back to the state, according to NPR.
"Getting the land back is only one step in what we've been demanding from Manhattan Beach and that's to get restitution for the loss of the business revenue, our generational wealth for the past 100 years and punitive damages for allowing the constable, which was the police department at that time, who were colluding with the Ku Klux Klan, to disenfranchise our people of their human rights," Shepard says.
The city of Manhattan Beach has been silent throughout this process and hasn't issued a formal apology. This led to Governor Newsom's pointed quip at the signing ceremony on September 30. "As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do. I want to apologize to the Bruce family," Newsom said.
The Bruces were hardly the only Black family harmed by Manhattan Beach's actions (and Manhattan Beach was hardly the only Southern California city that used dubious means to strip property from people of color). As scholar, historian and activist Alison Rose Jefferson, author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, notes, while returning the property is psychologically powerful, it doesn't acknowledge other Black families who lost land and businesses in Manhattan Beach. It also doesn't make up for the generational loss of socioeconomic space for Black people.
"Giving the land back is not all that needs to be done," Jefferson says. "In terms of our elected officials, they need to remember, what is this hundred-year legacy that has occurred there? What is it that we as a society and our elected representatives can do now, to implement public policies which might make for more opportunities for African Americans and other communities of color to have chances to live by the beach, to have chances to explore the beach in terms of social, cultural, sports activities?"
The California Coastal Commission is currently looking into ways to make the beach more affordable and accessible to all residents by examining fees and developments, according to Jefferson.
Kavon Ward is expanding her mission with Where is My Land, an organization dedicated to returning stolen land to people of color across the United States.
Supervisor Hahn hopes the return of Bruce's Beach encourages other states to take a fresh look at restitution and reparations.
"It is never too late to right a wrong, even if the people directly involved have been gone a long time. This was an injustice inflicted not just on Willa and Charles Bruce but on generations of their descendants who almost certainly would have been millionaires had they been able to keep this beachfront property. We can't make it up to Willa and Charles, but we can begin to make it up to their family that is still with us today," Hahn says.
For the Bruces, they hope their story will inspire others to take back what is rightfully theirs. "You are not going to win anything without standing up," Shepard says. "Nobody's going to give it to you. You're going to have to fight for it. And then, you're going to have to fight to keep it."