Bruce’s Beach history continues to divide Manhattan Beach. Council plans meeting

Over 130 members of the Bruce Family gathered at Bruce’s Beach Park in July, 2014 to celebrate their family’s Manhattan Beach history. Photo by D’Aughn Thomas

Over 130 members of the Bruce Family gathered at Bruce’s Beach Park in July, 2014 to celebrate their family’s Manhattan Beach history. Photo by D’Aughn Thomas

 

Bruce’s Beach, the park formerly home to an African American family resort lost to racist-inspired deployment of eminent domain a century ago, has become a rallying point for activists in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

A petition started by local activist Kaitlyn McQuown demanding restoration of the land to the Bruce family, who operated the resort, as well as restitution for lost income and an immediate rewrite of a plaque in the park to include more of its racist history has gathered more than 12,000 signatures. That tortured history has drawn national and particularly regional attention, with a long LA Times page one story reporting that the City of Manhattan Beach “faces a reckoning” over what to do with the park. 

The City Council had agendized the matter for its August 6 meeting and had scheduled historian Alison Rose Jefferson, whose book “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era” includes an examination of Bruce’s Beach. But she objected to the inclusion of the 1956 thesis by Bob Bingham on the matter being included in the city’s staff report. 

“She said she would not speak at our meeting if the download was included because she said, ‘Well, if they can get the download for free, why would anybody buy my book?’” said Councilperson Nancy Hersman. “…I just wanted the community to know we did try.” 

Instead, a staff report will be given on Bruce’s Beach August 18. 

 “Council has directed staff to present a factual history of Bruce’s Beach at the next meeting,” said Mayor Richard Montgomery. “At that meeting, after listening to our residents, we will decide on next steps. The topic and impact of Bruce’s Beach is a long term discussion and will involve our community at every stage.” 

The August 6 meeting, even with the matter pulled from the agenda, included robust and often pointed community discussion of Bruce’s Beach. 

McQuown, the leader of the petition movement, said that activists’ intent has been poorly understood. 

“As coverage of the story has grown and reached the L.A. Times, we 

have seen claims we should not ‘punish’ current residents for something they didn’t do. I want to be very clear: that is not what this means,” she said. “This movement is not demanding we punish current residents with a financial toll. It’s an opportunity to invest in justice for the Bruce family the exact same way we invest in our schools, parks and other public resources.  Because in the very same way, our investment in righting this wrong makes our city better. I have also seen claims from public officials and residents, some of whom are on council today, [that] the city is different than the one that originally committed this atrocity. To that I would say, okay, it’s great but it’s time to prove it. It’s not enough to put up a watered down plaque that makes no mention of the KKK or fully takes ownership of the city’s role.” 

McQuown argued that the only way historical inequities nationwide can be rectified is by more than symbolic action. She referenced “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” a book by Richard Rothstein that argues that restitution is a matter of both legal and moral obligation. 

“The book says that throughout our country’s history, Black people were unconstitutionally denied the right to build wealth and to integrate into middle and upper class neighborhoods, like our own. Because that was state sponsored, the city must rectify it,” she said. “It’s local government’s responsibility and moral obligation as a direct result of the segregation policies enacted by the same city. I lived here my entire life, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure the story doesn’t go dormant and let bygones be bygones.”

Resident Mike Michalski called the LA Times article dishonest and said restitution made no legal or moral sense. 

“There was a lot of racism in this country 100 years ago. Whatever you suspect were the city’s motives a century ago for exercising eminent domain over dozens of properties, including the Bruces’, back in the ‘20s. And if you look at the historical record, you will see the facts are sketchy at best,” he said. “The fact remains eminent domain, despite the comments you heard previously this evening, is not theft. It’s a constitutional exercise that government powers use for public purpose and just compensation requirements. But beyond that, the disposition of Bruce’s Beach was litigated. A settlement was reached. It was signed off by the courts….The property is rightfully owned by the city.”

Michalski suggested the Bruce family is being used by activists. 

“The fact that the Bruces 100 years ago had to settle for less than what the property was worth, well, join the club,” he said. “That’s a club that includes a long list, including every race and creed, including a number of families who were not people of color who also had their properties condemned at the same time. Rare is the property owner who thinks the state is giving them their full value.” 

Resident Lee Phillips asked that any discussion of Bruce’s Beach be balanced, not just looking into the history but also the context of eminent domain and the court case the Bruce’s and other property owners were a part of. She also suggested that people truly contemplate what it means to be anti racist on an individual level. 

“If you want to be anti racist you have to take action,” she said. “Looking around Manhattan Beach as a segregated city, you live in 5,000 squre-foot homes, you go to segregated schools. So what are the goals of being anti racist? What are you going to give up to be anti racist? I challenge everyone who speaks about justice and being anti racist to give up something to rectify it. What are you going to give up? Living in Manhattan Beach? Living in your large homes? Going to Mira Costa? I challenge you to give up half your income to someone less fortunate to rectify the injustices you see.” 

Resident Max Tullio said he supports restitution. He said he grew up in Manhattan Beach, attending Grandview and Mira Costa, and none of the history he learned included Bruce’s Beach. 

“The community needs to realize that Manhattan Beach has a past littered with white supremacism that is rarely if ever engaged with and I don’t think at any point in my schooling, throughout a decade here,  was it ever brought up in any classroom,” he said. “And when city council members and parents and teachers and police captains and all of us in the community don’t engage and acknowledge history because of our own uncomfortableness or fragility, we only serve to reinforce that very racism in Manhattan Beach. And I’m just tired of hearing regurgitated Fox News talking points from old boomers about how our history is our history and there’s nothing we can do about it. I mean, maybe read a book that’s not about Pete Rose or the NFL for once.” 

Resident Celia Allen said that while the history needs to be taught, that in and of itself is not enough. 

“I want to implore the City Council to keep in mind that their responsibility for restorative justice extends beyond history telling,” Allen said. “This council, regardless of the change in leadership and the time that has passed, remains accountable for the unethical use of eminent domain to seize the Bruce’s land. Until the City Council actively undoes such wrongdoings through restitution to the Bruce family and restoration of their land, the Council continues to uphold the same white supremicist ideology that drove the Bruces out of Manhattan Beach….Inaction by this council of true restorative justice is a form of white supremacy. It is racist.” ER 

 

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