Bruce’s Beach, Manhattan Beach: Dispossession

An American dream came to an end at Bruce’s Beach, but the memory of what happened survived

Third in a series

by Mark McDermott 

By the first years of the 1920s, Manhattan Beach was coming together. In the decade since its founding, what had been mostly a scattering of sandswept shacks emerged as an actual town. A city hall was built and residents approved bonds to construct both a waterworks and a pier with a distinctive octagonal roundhouse at its end. The city’s population had increased, albeit modestly, from 600 people to almost 900. But one particular segment of the population was growing in a way that some people in the city found concerning. 

Ten months before the city incorporated in late 1912, at the foot of a sand dune between 26th and 27th streets, Willa and Charles Bruce established a resort for African Americans. What began as a portable cottage and stand selling soda pop and lunch and renting bathing suits by the ‘20s had expanded to three buildings, including a dance hall, cafe, and lodgings. Willa Bruce was the embodiment of a new kind of American dream. She was originally from Missouri, where her mother had once been a slave, and had come out West with her husband during the first decade of the new century in hopes of finding a greater freedom than was available elsewhere in the United States. Willa had purchased this land and managed the operation while her husband continued working for the Union Pacific railway as a Pullman dining car chef. She had doubled her oceanfront land holdings at the start of the new decade, and she was no longer alone as the only African American owning land at the Manhattan Beach oceanfront. Four more Black families had joined her, no doubt attracted by the bustling resort now known as Bruce’s Beach. 

Nowhere else on the Southern California coast was there anything like it. Many African Americans rode the Pacific Electric trolleys down from Los Angeles, while some ventured up from as far away as San Diego to enjoy this rare stretch of beach that was owned and operated by a Black family. 

“You would take the Red Car down to the beach and spend a day on the beautiful beach or rent a room if you desired,” wrote Miriam Matthews, Los Angeles’ first Black librarian, in an essay for the California African American Museum. Matthews noted that the resort hosted Sunday school gatherings and families, and “if one tired of the sand and surf, the parlor was available for listening to music or dancing.” 

Bruce’s Beach in 1950, before a park was built, much as Robert Brigham saw it growing up. Photo from the Manhattan Beach Historical Society

Later in life Matthews would come to be known as the “Dean of Los Angeles Black History,” and was particularly responsible for restoring a part of the city’s collective memory that had nearly been lost — the fact that a majority of the 44 founders of the original pueblo that would become Los Angeles, known as the “pobladores,” were Black. The city had been multiracial in its very founding. 

Many of those who came to Bruce’s Beach would come to be known as pioneers in various aspects of Black history. Bessie Bruington Burke was the first Black teacher at the 51st Street School, the city’s first all-Black school; by the time she was photographed resting on a blanket at Bruce’s Beach in the 1920s Burke had become the school’s first Black principal. Charlotta Bass, the managing editor and owner of the California Eagle newspaper, was a chronicler of Bruce’s Beach and likely a friend of Willa Bruce; she would go on, in 1952, to become the first Black woman to run for vice president of the United States. Major George Prioleau and his wife, Ethel, who in 1919 were the first African American family to join the Bruces as property owners near the resort, were both leaders in the fight against Jim Crow segregationist practices that restricted where Black people could go and what they could do; the Major, famed as a chaplain of the “Buffalo Soldiers” all-Black 9th Cavalry on the American frontier and in the Spanish American war, fought for the rights of his men, who came home from war and were not allowed the simple dignity of being able to eat in the same restaurants as their white counterparts, while Ethel fought for the rights of Black nurses to be able to eat in the dining room at the LA County hospital. 

The California Eagle identified the importance of Bruce’s Beach as a place where “members of the race might spend their spare time enjoying the ocean breeze under their own vine and fig tree.” 

The arrival of such folks in Manhattan Beach was regarded as a “Negro invasion” by some white residents. They viewed Bruce’s Beach not simply as a resort but as the establishment of a beachhead that would result in the town being overrun by Black people. 

The best window into the hearts and minds of white Manhattan Beach at that time comes from a master’s thesis published in 1956 by Robert Brigham, who grew up walking by empty beachfront lots between 26th and 27th streets, wondered what had happened, and later investigated as a college student at Fresno State University. In the thesis, titled “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach,” Brigham identified one man as the leader of the fight to dispossess African Americans of their land. His name was George Lindsey. 

Lindsey arrived in Manhattan Beach in 1920. He was from Illinois, and quickly became one of only three real estate agents operating in town, and the only one concentrating on the north end. He was 21 years old, but he already had very clear ideas about race and what the growing Black community at Bruce’s Beach portended for the young city. Brigham wrote that he interviewed Lindsey twice and perceived “no particular malice towards Negroes.” 

“He feels that ‘education and co-operation will eventually solve the problem…perhaps in five hundred years or so’, and that most Negroes themselves realized this,” Brigham wrote. “Consequently, he looks upon those who attempted to establish residence in Manhattan and those who came for the day to enjoy the beach in front of Bruce’s Lodge as being of a belligerent minority operating outside of his concept of ‘education and co-operation.’” 

Lindsey therefore thought he was acting in the “best interests of all concerned” when, in 1921, he launched the movement to begin a “peaceful retardation of the Negro ‘invasion’” and thereby “maintain land values and a way of life in Manhattan Beach,” Brigham wrote. Brigham’s research found rumors of another plot that had never taken off, which was to plant liquor at Bruce’s Lodge — this was during Prohibition — and thereby turn the law on the Bruces. Lindsey first approached the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees, as the city council was called at the time, to ask that something be done about this so-called invasion. The board did not take immediate action. 

“Although sympathetic, the members of [the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees] were reluctant to take action lest they go on record as being bigots,” wrote Brigham, who interviewed several civic leaders from that time. 

The issue of Bruce’s Beach and what its increasing popularity meant for the young city continued to simmer, and not just below the surface. In the 15 interviews Brigham conducted with townsfolk from the time, he was told that one Black owned home had been burned to the ground, and another home had survived an arson attempt. Black beachgoers frequently returned to find their car tires had been deflated. One handyman told Brigham that he was doing repair work in one of the Black homes and was startled to see a handgun on a dresser. 

“Asking the woman of the house the purpose of the gun, she replied that it was kept for protection,” Brigham wrote. “This would indicate that relations between Negroes and whites were not generally amicable.” 

Cassius L. Robbins, a member of the Board of Trustees, told Brigham that the Ku Klux Klan had arrived in Manhattan Beach. 

“…He recounted a night in the early 1920s when he followed a siren to Bruce’s Lodge where someone (supposedly a Klansman) had set fire to a mattress under the main building,” Brigham wrote. “This produced lots of smoke, but the only fire was in the eyes of Mrs. Bruce as she greeted the white spectators.” 

On November 15, 1923, Lindsey returned to the Board of Trustees. By this time, Lindsey had discovered a way to use the law to displace the Bruces and their neighbors. The Park and Playground Act of 1909, he argued, could be used by the City in order to condemn the land via eminent domain, so long as city fathers deemed the land more useful as a park. He brought the board a petition in support of condemning the land for this purpose. This time, city leaders were more than sympathetic. They were prepared to act. 

A “True Sons of Freedom” poster featuring African American soldiers serving in WWI. Courtesy the Library of Congress

The war, the Klan, and the movement

The civil rights movement is often regarded as something that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. Wikipedia dates it as beginning in 1954 with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Supreme Court victory in Brown vs. the Board of Education, and ending in 1968 with the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the passage, months later, of the Civil Rights Act. 

But the movement of Black people towards freedom was certainly not contained entirely within those 14 years. 

“The civil rights movement was occurring over the last 500 years,” said Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era, the definitive scholarly work regarding what occurred at Bruce’s Beach and its historical context. “Abolition was civil rights. The protests during Reconstruction in the latter 1800s against the racist treatment of African Americans, as much as they could, were civil rights actions. And so in the early part of the 20th century, that was just another phase of the continuing struggle to get free, to get totally free.” 

Willa Bruce knew when she bought oceanfront land in Manhattan Beach that she was in for a fight. “I own this land,” she told the LA Times when, a week after opening, city father George Peck roped off the beach in front of her resort, a clear message of what was to come. “And I am going to keep it.” 

And so three weeks after Lindsey submitted his petition for condemnation of Bruce’s Beach, on December 6, 1923, the Bruces and other Black property owners submitted their own petition to the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees. They were not going to leave without a fight. 

The 1920s were a time of increasing disillusionment for Black America. World War I had been championed as the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” and 350,000 Black Americans fought for this cause. Several segregated Black units fought alongside French soldiers against the Germans in America’s instrumental joining of forces along the Western Front in 1918, which is often credited as the military intervention that won the war. When the war ended, there was genuine hope that democracy would likewise more fully land on American shores as a result of how Black troops had proven their patriotism. W.E.B. Du Bois, the influential Black writer and civil rights leader who’d helped found the NAACP a decade earlier, was among those who accompanied President Woodrow Wilson when he sailed to France to begin negotiations on “a new world order.” This sense of promise quickly disintegrated, however. The United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, Europe remained destabilized, and returning African American soldiers were targeted for violence in the American South, where, as historian Douglas Flamming notes in Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, they were regarded as “strutting negroes.” 

“The federal government later mandated that the official name for the conflict would be the ‘World War,’ but for Black Americans the war’s legacy was less global than domestic,” Flamming wrote. “That Black patriotism would not be rewarded with racial equality became painfully obvious, as Black soldiers in France received the full Jim Crow treatment from the U.S. Army during the demobilization process…While Black soldiers enjoyed warm welcomes in their own communities, they met hostile, sometimes deadly receptions in white America, especially in Dixie.” A series of particularly horrifying events occurred in Texas, where mobs of whites lynched Black veterans and in at least one case burned a man at the stake, riveting the African American community nationally. Race riots occurred in nearly every major city, save Los Angeles, where tensions were nonetheless heightened. 

The Reverend Benjamin C. Robeson was among those soldiers who returned from the war disillusioned. Robeson had served as a chaplain in the 369th Calvary, which was assigned directly to the French Army because white American soldiers refused to fight alongside Blacks. The French government awarded the Croix de Guerre to 170 individual members of the 369th, and a unit citation was awarded to the entire regiment. But back in the United States, these veterans couldn’t eat at most restaurants or even relax at most beaches. Robeson, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal church community and thus likely known by the Prioleau and Bruce families, who were part of the AME congregation in Los Angeles, wrote a series of essays in the California Eagle. 

“Our concern now is democracy,” wrote Robeson, who was the brother of singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. “We want America to give us a square deal, a chance to work out our destiny without fear or favor. We have helped save Europe, we would now save the land we love… We fought no sham battle and we will have no sham democracy.”

The oceanfront was becoming a battlefront in this fight for democracy. As Jefferson notes in Living the California Dream, in 1922 a group called the Santa Monica Protective League (which described itself as “a membership of 1,000 Caucasions”) successfully lobbied the City Council to ban dancing at a Black-operated dance hall near the city’s Ocean Park neighborhood, a community hub for African Americans near one of the few beaches (known derogatorily as Inkwell), other than Bruce’s Beach, where Blacks were allowed to go. A few months later, the Council likewise acceded to petitions and pressure from the Protective League and halted plans underway for a proposed Black-owned beach resort in the same neighborhood. In 1924, at the same time the City of Manhattan Beach was preparing to take action against Bruce’s Beach, neighboring El Segundo began a fight that was ultimately successful to invalidate an oceanfront lease that had been granted to Black entrepreneur Titus Alexander, who had also planned to establish a resort. 

In January, the Board of Trustees passed an ordinance declaring its intentions to acquire Bruce’s Beach and an adjoining block “for public park purposes.” The city put up “ten minute only” parking signs in the neighborhood, and in June of that year enacted laws prohibiting further beachfront private development that — like in Santa Monica and El Segundo — was plainly aimed at African Americans. 

Jefferson noted that California law technically had anti-discrimination protections in place, but that booster clubs and business organizations along the Southern California coast were convincing governments such as Manhattan Beach to ignore such laws. 

“At this time California had civil rights laws that made it illegal to discriminate against all citizens in public places, which would have included the oceanfront,” Jefferson wrote. “Nevertheless, local legal sanctions were implemented to discourage African Americans from settling in Manhattan Beach.” 

The California Eagle saw the hand of the Ku Klux Klan behind these actions. 

“It is understood that some Ku Klux who recently moved in the vicinity objects to the presence of Colored folk, and have so manipulated their objections that they have reached and influenced the servants of the people [who have] condemned Bruce [‘s] Beach as a pleasure resort for Colored people,” the Eagle reported, also noting that three Black men were approached by the Klan at the Redondo Beach pier and handed a pamphlet titled, “The Ideals of the Ku Klux Klan” with a note penciled in the margin that said “Colored Folks Beach three miles north.” As Brigham noted, the Klan had advertised a free lecture earlier that year in the Redondo Breeze newspaper. 

More than 200,000 white Southerners arrived in Southern California in the 1920s, bringing with them an extremely proactive form of racism. 

“Black newspapers called it ‘the Southern virus.’ This is a virus all white people can catch,” said Daniel Cady, a history professor at Fresno State who has studied this period extensively. “It’s like the pandemic.” 

They also brought two institutions, which were entwined — the Trinity Methodist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. Trinity Methodist, which was located in downtown Los Angeles only three miles from the First African Methodists Episcopal Church that the Bruces and their neighbors attended, was led by a fire-breathing Southern preacher named Robert Shuler. 

Southern, white, and searching for converts, both Shuler and the Klan landed in Los Angeles in the early 1920s with the intention of redeeming the West through the tenets of a mythic Southern past,” wrote Daniel Cady in A Battle Transplanted: Southern California’s White Churches, Black Press, and the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, published in The Journal of the West. “In tandem they offered to save white Angelenos from the destructive influence of non-whites, foreigners, and the evils of the modern age. If, according to Shuler and the Klan, white Angelenos could only adopt the creed of white supremacy, white Protestant fundamentalist theology, and southern chivalry, the free people of the West could wrest control of the city’s social and political future from the grip of the amoral liberal elite, and an increasingly vocal black middle class. From his downtown pulpit at Trinity Methodist Church, Shuler thus linked arms with the members of the ‘Invisible Empire’ and altered Los Angeles’s political and social dynamic.”

The Klan opened offices a mile from Trinity Methodist as well as “klaverns” throughout the region. In 1922, in an incident known as “the Inglewood raid,” roughly 200 Klansmen descended on a bootleg liquor operation run by Basque immigrants. When police responded, an exchange of gunfire resulted in the death of a police officer who was cloaked in Klan robes. Two other Klansmen who were also shot and injured were also revealed to be Inglewood police officers. A Grand Jury investigation resulted, and more than 150 subpoenas were issued; Klan membership rolls were thus obtained, revealing the identities of more than 3,000 Klansmen. Among the names were dozens of prominent South Bay business and civic leaders, including Redondo Beach’s mayor and chief of police. Another was a deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County. 

And so the California Eagle’s suspicions regarding the role of the Klan at Bruce’s Beach was not based on direct evidence, but neither was it mere paranoia. The Klan’s presence was increasingly pervasive throughout the area. Brigham, in his thesis, notes that he personally saw a certificate of membership for the Hermosa chapter of the Klan. 

In October 1924, the Board of Trustees formally initiated proceedings for acquisition by condemnation of Blocks 5 and 12 of Peck’s Manhattan Beach Tract. The City filed a lawsuit a month later. The condemnation applied to a total of 30 lots; six were owned by Black families, including the Bruces, and had been developed. The rest were owned by white property owners — all acquired, according to Brigham, between 1907 and 1915 — and were entirely empty of development. 

Only one of the white owners answered the complaint, and Brigham’s research indicated they were an absentee ownership group who actually supported the condemnation. 

“Ten of the fourteen non-Negro parties owning or holding liens against involved property defaulted immediately, whereas only one of the five Negro parties failed to answer within the required time,” Brigham wrote. “It would be naive to think that any of the property owners were unaware of the condition that existed; that is, that the City of Manhattan Beach was striving to prevent Negro residence within the city limits through the means of ostensibly condemning for park purposes the property on which all but one of the Negro families lived.” 

The Bruces’ formal answer to the complaint of condemnation alleged that action’s intention was to “entirely free the said City from their presence because of the fact that they are Negroes… the said proceedings are arbitrary, oppressive and inspired by Racial Prejudice.” 

Willa Bruce and her son, Harvey, would later directly appeal to their neighbors via a letter on the front page of the Manhattan Beach News. The letter, unearthed by the Manhattan Beach History Advisory Board in its recent, final report to the Manhattan Beach City Council, is the last piece of historical record in which Willa Bruce’s voice can be directly heard. 

“We have always felt and we hope we will be pardoned for plainly and bluntly saying so, that the attempt to make a park out of these two blocks was a direct slap at us because we were not born white people,” she wrote. ER

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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