LA County moves towards reparations for Bruce’s Beach

LA County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn welcomes Dr. Martin Luther King to Los Angeles in 1961. Hahn was the only elected official who would meet with King at that time. Hahn’s daughter, Supervisor Janice Hahn, is spearheading what she hopes is another ground-breaking moment in civil rights — returning Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family. Photo courtesy Janice Hahn

Embarrassment. That was Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn’s reaction last year when she first heard the history of Bruce’s Beach, in which a Black-owned resort was taken by force from a family by the City of Manhattan Beach in 1924 after suffering a decade of violence-tinged harassment from the Ku Klux Klan and other local white supremacists. 

“I was embarrassed that I, who grew up in Los Angeles County, did not ever hear or learn of Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach,” said Hahn, who grew up going to the beach and learned to swim in the ocean just a few blocks from Bruce’s Beach. 

Hahn thought she knew something of the history of race in the United States, and particularly Los Angeles County. Her father was Kenneth Hahn, the famed Los Angeles County Supervisor who, for four decades, held the same seat his daughter currently holds, and who in 1961 was one of the first elected officials in the country to publicly embrace Dr. Martin Luther King. She also had served in Congress alongside legendary civil rights leader John Lewis and accompanied him on a pilgrimage to such historically resonant locations as Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, an experience that Hahn said opened her eyes more viscerally to the African American experience of race in the South. 

“I remember coming home from that trip, sort of feeling like, ‘Gosh, that was unbelievable, what happened in the South. We did not experience that in Southern California. I don’t remember drinking fountains that were labeled white and colored. I don’t remember specifically being segregated in where I went to school or went to church,’” Hahn said. “So somehow, I thought we didn’t have that racist past in Los Angeles. And sure enough, we did. And Bruce’s Beach is one story; there are so many others that are now coming to light. So my first feeling was embarrassment that I did not know this story.” 

After Black Lives Matter activists protested at Bruce’s Beach last summer, Hahn finally learned about Willa and Charles Bruce, and how they and other Black families were compelled to leave their oceanside properties after the City utilized the legal process of eminent domain to wrest the land away from them. Hahn began doing her own research. 

“When I finally saw the parcel map, where the actual resort had been, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the property that LA County owns, where we now have our lifeguard administration building,” Hahn recalled. 

She then had her staff further research the history of the land. The City of Manhattan Beach, it turned out, had given the land to the state in 1948, and then the state gave it to the county in 1995. 

“It really mattered to me,” Hahn said. “I thought, ‘You know what? Los Angeles County could, in fact, help right a wrong that happened 100 years ago. I was compelled at that moment to do what I thought was the right thing…. This was not just an injustice to Charles and Willa Bruce. This was an injustice to generations who most certainly would have been wealthy.”  

County legal advisers told Hahn that three options were available. One would simply be to return the land to the Bruce family. Another would be to transfer ownership of the land back to the Bruces and then establish a ground lease in which LA County pays rent to the family and keep the lifeguard headquarters. The third option would be to determine the value of the property —  estimates range from $40 million to $70 million —  and pay the Bruces.

As she considered the options, the first call Hahn made was to the last remaining direct descendant of Willa and Charles Bruce, their great-great-grandson Anthony Bruce. 

“When I talked to Anthony Bruce, I realized that this is not in the past for the Bruce family,” Hahn said. “They have agonized about this their entire lives. He said there were some years where they could talk about it, some years where they couldn’t talk about it. He told me his own father was so angry at the world about it that he could barely reconcile anything. So it was a deep scar in their family history.” 

“I just want justice for my family,” Bruce told the Los Angeles Times, which ran an in-depth story this week regarding the past, present, and future of Bruce’s Beach. “I’m just looking for hope and mercy.”

Bruce told Hahn that his chief aim in whatever agreement could be reached with LA County is that it did not bring further discord to his family. 

“He was not interested in doing anything that brought more grief to the family,” Hahn said. 

Hahn understood. She’s been around public policy long enough to understand that good intentions can still have unintended consequences. The idea was to first do no harm. Towards that end, the solution the County is moving towards is transferring the land to the Bruces in a way that does not immediately saddle the family with an enormous property tax bill. 

“I’ve definitely listened to Anthony Bruce on what he thought would benefit the family and not be a burden on the family,” Hahn said.  “So I think we’re really going to land on transferring the property and then entering into a lease with the Bruce family. The County will pay to continue to operate the lifeguard administration building for however long, but it’s their property after that. They can do what they want.” 

Because the land was taken from the Bruces by legal means, any transfer of the land at present could constitute an illegal gift of public funds. But that aspect of the transaction could be made legal through state legislation, and Hahn said several lawmakers are prepared to make that happen. 

“Steve Bradford, Al Muratsuchi, Ben Allen —  they are all on it,” Hahn said. “They are going to introduce legislation I think next week. It’s not going to solve all the problems, it’s not going to right all the wrongs, even for the Bruce family. But I think everybody wants in some small way to be part of bringing justice to the Bruce family 100 years later.” 

Allen and Muratsuchi, whose respective state senate and assembly districts each include Bruce’s Beach, confirmed that legislative work is underway. 

“I am working with Supervisor Hahn and other South Bay representatives to provide a measure of justice to descendants of the Bruce family,” said Muratsuchi. “What happened to the Bruces and other South Bay Black families a hundred years ago was wrong and must be reckoned with.”

“This legislative effort will give the County flexibility as it seeks to rectify wrongs from the past,” said Allen. 

Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of the Bruces who is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation, has also served as a spokesperson for the family. He applauded Hahn’s efforts and said the family is weighing its options as it awaits the outcome of the county and state process. 

“And then we’ll weigh in as a family, whether under these circumstances, we want to even be a part of Manhattan Beach at this point,” Shepard said.

Shepard said the family had taken note of the Ku Klux Klan flyers that were handed out in Newport Beach last weekend, a reminder that the bigotry that forced the Bruces from Manhattan Beach a century ago has not disappeared. 

“I don’t know if the family wants to put themselves into that type of environment a second time,” Shepard said. “We are hopeful. We are planning and we are discussing and we’re waiting for something beautiful to happen for the restitution.” 

Hahn has thought often of her father as she has navigated this issue. She said that part of what was eye-opening when she made the civil rights pilgrimage with John Lewis was the realization that her father took real risks when he met with Dr. King. At that point, most white politicians did not want to be seen with King, who was a controversial figure. Neither the mayor of LA nor any of the council met with King, nor did any state elected officials. Only Kenneth Hahn. 

“No one else even wanted to be seen with Dr. King,” Hahn said. “My dad was so honored to meet Dr. King when he came, and he spent two hours with him, put him in his car, drove around, took him to his office and had a cup of coffee with him. I mean, they really bonded.” 

And so the skepticism Hahn has faced as she has tried to do right by the Bruce family has left her largely unfazed. The civil rights movement, Hahn said, is not only a matter of history but rather is ongoing and occurs one small step at a time. When it comes to reparations, the question is often asked —  where does it stop? That is, if the Bruces’ land is returned to the family, then perhaps Native Americans and other groups on the losing end of history have even broader claims. 

But Hahn reverses the question. 

“Where does it start?” she said. “Someone was interviewing me and they said, ‘Are you afraid to start a precedent?’ And I said, ‘I hope it does.’” 

The question of apology

The Manhattan Beach City Council, at its April 6 meeting will wrestle with another question: whether or not to issue an official apology to the Bruce family for what occurred a century ago. 

The Council, like the community, appears split on the issue. Councilmembers Steve Napolitano and Hildy Stern, who co-chaired the Bruce’s Beach Task Force, have publicly called for an apology. The task force itself, a 13 member body appointed by the council, has already prepared a draft resolution of apology.  Councilperson Joe Franklin and Mayor Suzanne Hadley, representing constituents who have argued that an apology suggests not only a racist past, but a racist present in Manhattan Beach, have argued against it. 

“We do not want to ignore the past but we do not want it embroidered in a scarlet ‘R’ upon our chest,” Hadley said at the council’s March 23 meeting. 

The LA Times editorial board weighed in on the matter this week. The question of reparations, the Times wrote, is a thorny issue that raises larger questions for society about how to redress the wrongs of history. 

“But the difficulty of such questions is no reason to slow justice in this case, in which the injustice occurred in living memory and close descendants continue to claim their family’s legacy,” the Times wrote. “Should it be the county that repays the Bruces, or the state, or Manhattan Beach? All worthy questions. But begin with the apology.” 

Shepard said he was perplexed by the City Council’s apparent hesitance.  

“That reluctance to issue an apology is really sad for them because you’re in the crosshairs of every media outlet in the world,” Shepard said. “Now, everybody’s looking at Manhattan Beach because of this, and they keep falling over themselves, trying to change that racist image that they have. Every time they do something like this, they don’t realize that they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I just don’t understand what the reluctance is to giving an apology — even though the Bruce family has not asked for one — and I just feel for the other people in their community who are not of the conservative and racist factions that are making these public statements in the newspapers. I would think that Manhattan Beach would want to change this image.” 

Anthony Bruce called in via Zoom the night of the March 23 council meeting. Bruce, who lives in Tampa Bay, Florida, expressed full support for the Bruce’s Beach Task Force and love for the residents of Manhattan Beach. He read from Biblical scripture.

“I’ve already forgiven the Manhattan Beach City Council, the Ku Klux Klan, as well as all parties involved in the breaking of the law and committing hate crimes against my family, the Bruces,” he said. 

Bruce concluded his comments by praying for peace and mercy on behalf of everyone involved in the matter of Bruce’s Beach.

 

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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