HISTORY – Prioleau family objects to Bruce’s Beach plaque language
by Mark McDermott
The City of Manhattan Beach will unveil a new plaque at Bruce’s Beach Park on Saturday, one that replaces a plaque erected in 2006 that contained a misrepresentation of the actual history of the land. But one of the families named on the new plaque believes it also contains a significant historical misrepresentation.
Anna King Gonzales, the 90-year-old matriarch of a family that is directly descended from former Bruce’s Beach residents George and Ethel Prioleau, says she has attempted without success to alert the City that the new plaque’s description in its second paragraph that her grandparents lived “near” the park is inaccurate.
“The original location of the lot that was taken away from them was right there in the park,” said Gonzales, naming its location. “Lot 4, Block 12.”
The inscription on the plaque opens with the arrival of the Bruces in Manhattan Beach.
“After being turned away from other coastal cities, Willa and Charles Bruce acquired property along the Strand in Manhattan Beach to create a beach resort for the Black community on February 19, 1912,” it reads. “By 1916, the resort known as ‘Bruce’s Beach’ was a thriving fixture for the Black community, with a restaurant, dancehall, changing rooms, and showers.”
The second graph broadens to include the other families.
“Soon after, several other Black families purchased property near the current park location. Major George Prioleau and Mrs. Ethel Prioleau, Elizabeth Patterson, Mary Sanders, Milton and Anna Johnson, John McCaskill and Elzia Irvin, and James and Lula Slaughter built homes on their property.”
The error matters to the family, Gonzales said, because it essentially removes the Prioleaus from the land yet again. That, in addition to the City’s refusal to issue a formal apology to the displaced families, has made Gonzales and her family feel unwelcome in Manhattan Beach. She responded to an invitation to the new plaque unveiling by informing the City of the inaccuracy but was met with silence.
“The City of Manhattan Beach extended an invitation to me to attend the upcoming ‘new’ plaque unveiling,” Gonzales said. “However, our family will not be in attendance. We are concerned that attending would make us complicit in the City Council’s attempt to whitewash the atrocities of their past actions and our experiences with them.”
In 2020, the City Council began a review of Bruce’s Beach history. At the time, an activist movement called Justice for Bruce’s Beach brought renewed attention to the land’s history and the City’s role in the dispossession the Black families experienced. The Council formed a Task Force to research that history, resulting in the adoption of the history report on Bruce’s Beach. The rewriting of the plaque grew out of that same effort.
At the time the original plaque was unveiled, in 2006, the City also renamed the park Bruce’s Beach Park. It had formerly been named Parque Culiacan. The renaming and the plaque were part of the City’s first earnest effort to address one of the most tragic episodes in its early history. In 1912, months before the City of Manhattan Beach was incorporated, Willa and Charles Bruce bought oceanfront land in the fledgling town and opened a resort catering to the Black community of Los Angeles. The resort flourished, and eventually, a small African American community began to coalesce around Bruce’s Beach resort.
In addition to the Bruces and the Prioleaus, the four other African American families were all eventually compelled to leave their properties.
The former plaque at the park praised one of the City’s founders for allowing Black people to purchase land.
“In 1912, Mr. George Peck, one of our community’s co-founders, made it possible for the beach area below this site to be developed as Bruce’s Beach, the only beach resort in Los Angeles County for all people,” the plaque’s history began.
In fact, Peck did not sell the land, and shortly after the Bruces opened up their lodge had the beach roped off and “No Trespassing” signs erected, requiring Black beachgoers to walk a half mile to reach the beach.
“Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Willa Bruce told the LA Times. “But I own this land, and I am going to keep it.”
The new plaque language, crafted by the City Council, attempts to redress the mistelling of history included on the first plaque.
“The City’s action at the time was racially motivated and wrong,” the plaque says in one of its concluding graphs. “Today, the City acknowledges and condemns those past actions, and empathizes with those whose property was seized. We are not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. We reject racism, hate, intolerance, and exclusion.”
A statement released by the City says the plaque “honors the African American community affected by the eminent domain ruling” and specifically acknowledges “the wrongful actions of past governmental officials and white residents who intimidated, harassed, and demonstrated discrimination against Black homeowners and visitors to the neighborhood now known as Bruce’s Beach.”
Mayor Napolitano emphasized the need for the City to set things right.
“It is important that we remember and honor the history behind the area we now call Bruce’s Beach Park,” Napolitano said. “While we cannot change what happened nearly 100 years ago, neither should we run from it. We have taken great strides to better understand that difficult chapter in our history and embrace the lessons we can learn from it. By shining a light on the truth of the injustices of the past, Manhattan Beach has begun a new chapter of recovery and healing. Today, we are an inclusive, loving, and caring community and this new plaque reflects that.”
The Prioleau family, however, believes the plaque dishonors the memory of their ancestors by getting a key fact wrong.
“We are not happy at all,” said Patricia Patton, one of six great-grandchildren of the Prioleaus. “That plaque is certainly a gesture, and it beats the hell — pardon my French — of that other plaque that was up there in terms of actually speaking about some of the history. They do acknowledge they were wrong and that it was racially motivated. But the fact that they won’t even speak to us, and that one word on the plaque, ‘near’ — it is just wrong.”
Patton said the family also sent an attorney to meet with a City Councilperson to express its concerns. The attorney was directed to City Attorney Quinn Barrow.
“Our family would like the public to know that our experience with the City of Manhattan Beach has been the MB of 100 years ago and not the MB they claim to be on the new park monument,” said Gonzales.
In 1919, Major George and Mrs. Ethel Prioleau became the first of six more families — in addition to the Bruces — who would purchase nearby lots over the next four years. The Prioleaus, in particular, were pillars of the Black LA community. Both were pioneers in the fight against racial segregation.
George Washington Prioleau is an American legend. He was born a slave in South Carolina in 1856, but later earned his theology degree and rose to prominence as a professor and an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Ohio. In 1889, President Grover Cleveland appointed him chaplain of the 9th Cavalry, the all-Black regiment which served on the Western frontier known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” A decade later, the 9th Cavalry was relocated to the South for military activities in Cuba and the Caribbean, and Prioleau emerged as an outspoken critic of the racism and segregation his troops endured. Both he and Ethel were early supporters of the NAACP; she would later help lead a successful fight to end segregation practices for nurses at LA County hospitals and in public pools in Los Angeles.
According to family records, the Bruces belonged to the First AME Church of Los Angeles, the oldest and largest Black church in LA. This is likely where they met Major Prioleau, who would later found another church in the area, Bethel AME. However they met, the Prioleaus’ arrival at Bruce’s Beach was significant. They were dignitaries among Black Angelenos, and opening up the beaches of LA County for African Americans was becoming one of the great civil rights fights of that time. The beach, as historian Alison Rose Jefferson would later write, represented the apex of a free life, of the “California Dream.” And so this battlefront had an added historical importance, as did the dispossession of the Bruces and the other six families.
Anna King Gonzales never met her grandfather, who passed away before she was born. But she was born in her grandmother’s house in Los Angeles and spent much of her early childhood there. The loss of the family’s home in Manhattan Beach lingered.
“I lived with my grandmother and I heard her talk about many things, and Manhattan Beach was one of those things,” she said. “I remember her saying, ‘Unfortunately, we can’t go down to the beach like we used to when your mother was a little girl. Because that property was taken from us.’”
Patton said the family has been pleased by recent developments at Bruce’s Beach, including LA County’s return of the actual parcels where the resort was located to the Bruce family and its eventual purchase from the family for $20 million. They were also greatly honored by the plaque erected by the County at that site, which includes family photos and a plot map showing where every Black family’s home was located. That plaque language, in fact, came from the City of Manhattan Beach’s own History Advisory Board, and much of it was originally proposed for the City’s plaque. But both the City’s handling of its plaque and its refusal to issue a formal apology have unintentionally sent a message of non-inclusion to the descendants of the Prioleaus. The “acknowledge and condemn” language on the plaque originally arose in the place of the proposed apology, and so to the Prioleau family and others who advocated for an apology the phrase is freighted with a contrary meaning.
“Yes, they are recognizing us, and they are saying it was racially motivated and wrong,” Patton said. “But the whitewash to me comes into it with this ‘kumbaya and everyone’s happy’ kind of message, and meanwhile they are not reaching out to us,” It’s just, ‘Listen, we are putting up a plaque saying it was racism, now go away and leave us alone.’ LA County — talk about a formal apology to the Bruces, right? We are not looking for $20 million. We had a small lot. We just want them to formally acknowledge us personally, not just in the way of a plaque. Don’t keep sending us away.”
Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian whose book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era contains an account of Bruce’s Beach, said she agreed that the plaque is not an accurate representation of the land’s history.
“I agree with the family that the factual inaccuracies continue a similar disregard for all the property owners and visitors to Bruce’s Beach experienced, while living, from the City of Manhattan Beach,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson suggested the plaque language “is about the City Councilmembers wanting to be the White saviors as they project their guilt about their city’s racist past actions,” noting that the council rewrote more historically informed language from the History Advisory Board. She also noted that the City had allocated $350,000 for a future public art piece at the park.
“There are professionals who write these kinds of historical interpretive texts,” she said. “The City Council and its polity should have taken advantage of engaging their expertise and hired one for this important site landmark project. If the City Council could approve $350,000 for an artist and an art piece to recognize the lost African American community and the city’s racist past, it is contradictory and cynical that the Council and its citizens, would not find the moral fortitude and leadership to engage a professional to assist with getting a factual and inspiring text on the new plaque.”
Kristin Long Drew, a member of the Historical Advisory Board, said that City’s plaque corrects the misinformation from the previous plaque. Her hope is that, together with the County plaque, the plaque will guide those who read it to think deeply about what occurred on the land.
“The space afforded by the County’s plaque allowed us to use those images, maps, and newspaper articles to tell more of the story. It serves as an informative historical marker on a significant historical location,” she said. “The City’s plaque is smaller and, it’s my understanding, it’s more of a memorial, especially as it will be coupled with a forthcoming art piece. I think it’s meant to evoke reflection: as visitors read the plaque, absorb the art and take in the views of the ocean, they can consider what might’ve been and how the effects of racially motivated actions are unfair and unjust.
“It is my personal hope that visitors will read this plaque and want to know more about what happened here, so they’ll visit the plaque on the Strand or look into the history report and educate themselves,” Long said. “Maybe all this will inspire people to be like Mrs. Bruce and work hard and fight for something they believe in, or maybe they’ll learn how people like Dr. H.C. Hudson and Elizabeth Catley showed the absurdity and wrongfulness of racially motivated ‘laws’ when they dared to swim in the ocean here. Their actions resulted in making the Manhattan Beach beachfront public and open to all.”
Napolitano on Wednesday said that the City is considering whether or not the plaque language is, in fact, inaccurate. He did not rule out changing it. The language the Council approved a year ago did not include the word “near” but it was sent to a grammarian, Napolitano said, who rewrote the language to reflect the fact that three of the families named on the plaque, the Slaughters, Irvins and McCaskills, did, in fact, live near the park rather than on that land.
“The second paragraph includes the names of several families that were affected by racist incidents as outlined in the history report, but whose homes were not directly where the park is now,” Napolitano said. “It is the best way that it can be said? No, probably not. However, specific to the Prioleau’s property, the fifth paragraph, or second to last paragraph, states very clearly that the city condemned their property for use as a public park, and names the owners of the other Black-owned properties that were condemned for the park as well, which does not include the names of the Slaughters, Irvins [and McCaskills].”
Napolitano said the intent of the City for the last three years has been to confront the history of Bruce’s Beach honestly and accurately, and the use of the word “near” came about through the grammarian’s revision of text approved by the Council a year ago. That change was intended to make the language inclusive of the Black families who did not actually live on the land that is now the park but suffered racist harassment. He referred to the fifth graph on the plaque, which he said gives the plaque’s overall message accuracy.
“Enough White residents ultimately pressured the City Council to exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire the land for use as a public park,” that graph reads. “As a result, the City condemned the properties of the Bruces, the Prioleaus, the Johnsons, Ms. Patterson, and Ms. Sanders.In addition, twenty-five White-owned properties that sat undeveloped among the Black-owned properties were also condemned.”
“So while the use of the words ‘near’ may be inartful, it is not inaccurate when wanting to include all the Black families who owned property in the area and the plaque clearly says the Prioleau’s property was condemned for the park space,” Napolitano said. ”If the Prioleaus are very clear on all the above and still object, I’m happy to listen, but the idea that the City, after all the discussion over the past three years, is trying to minimize or obfuscate anything is simply not true and I’m hoping that can be understood by all here.”
Napolitano said he will save further remarks for Saturday’s ceremony. But he did note that he offered an apology in 2021 that was outvoted by his colleagues at the time.
“I support an apology that doesn’t bind any individual or assign blame to anyone, nor to the city we are today, which is welcoming to all,” he said at the time. “I think it’s the right thing to do….The point is that Bruce’s Beach has been a crack in the foundation of our community for the past 100 years. And an apology is the best way to strengthen that foundation for the next 100 years.”
Patton said the family has made an issue of the inaccuracy in its own effort to honor George and Ethel Prioleau.
“My mother and her sisters were the children of George and Ethel, so they shared with us in our lifetime how hurt our grandparents were by what happened to them in Manhattan Beach,” she said. “It just went deep. It hurt them deeply that they were run out of there, the beautiful people that they are — and I think they are watching. They know what is going on. They fought so hard all their lives to do the right thing in every way for the community, their church, and their family. And if we could fight for them and get this apology, I think it means the world.”
The Bruce’s Beach plaque unveiling takes place at 10 a.m. March 18.