Legislation to return Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach clears legal hurdles 

The Los Angeles County Lifeguard training center is on land once occupied by Bruce's Lodge. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Mark McDermott 

Legislation crafted to pave the way for the County of Los Angeles to return land in Manhattan Beach that belonged to Willa and Charles Bruce before it was taken through eminent domain a century ago cleared two more hurdles last week in its journey towards becoming law. 

SB 796, known as the Bruce’s Beach bill, passed unanimously through both the State Assembly and State Senate, and now awaits only the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom, a final step that is expected to occur soon. 

LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn began the legislative process after learning of the land’s history when the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement arose in Manhattan Beach as a local offshoot of the national Black Lives Matter movement. The bill was marshalled through the State House by State Senator Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena. 

Hahn urged Newsom to sign the legislation as soon as possible. 

“I am determined to return Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family, but I can’t do it without this legislation,” Hahn said. “I am grateful to Senator Bradford for stepping up and shepherding this bill through the state legislature. I have been so moved by the overwhelming support that we have gotten for this effort in Sacramento. At long last, this bill is heading to Governor Newsom’s desk. I not only urge him to sign it, but I also think it would mean so much if he signed it at Bruce’s Beach.”

Kavon Ward, who founded the Justice for Bruce’s Beach movement, celebrated the moment but also vowed that this is only the beginning of a broader movement towards restorative justice. 

“A little over a year ago I had the audacious courage of demanding that policy be changed to deed the land back to the Bruce’s,” Ward said.  “I organized, testified in front of the Coastal Commission, marched, protested, sat for hours during abusive Manhattan Beach City Council meetings, and had my life threatened.  But I was determined to get justice for the Bruce family. And now it is happening. I am honored to be a huge and significant part of this history being made.” 

Ward has started a larger organization to help families across the nation who, like the Bruces, lost land due to racially inspired governmental actions. 

“I am excited to continue my work through my national organization, Where is My Land, to help other Black families reclaim their land and/or obtain restitution for the nefarious theft of their ancestors’ land,” Ward said. “The time for reparative justice is now!” 

From 1912 to 1924, the Bruces operated a successful resort, one of the very few places on the Southern California coast where Black people could come to the beach. It attracted a burgeoning African American community after a half dozen other Black families purchased adjoining land. The City of Manhattan Beach, concerned that what was known as “the Negro Problem” would “slow our progress,” as one city leader later wrote, condemned the land through the use of eminent domain. The city in 1948 gave the land to the state, which in 1995 gave it to the county. 

SB 796, which was introduced by Bradford and co-authored by State Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymembers Al Muratsuchi and Autumn Burke, addresses deed restrictions attached to the former Bruce’s Beach land that require only public use of the land. The language of the bill amends the state’s Public Resource Code to “except the requirement that the County of Los Angeles comply with all restrictions specified in the deed…” The bill, which is an urgency statute, also adds a new section to the code: 

“To ensure that the property located in Manhattan State Beach, commonly known as ‘Bruce’s Beach,’ is expeditiously sold, transferred, or encumbered upon terms and conditions determined by the Board of Supervisors of the County of Los Angeles to be in the best interest of the county and the general public, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately.” 

The Board of Supervisors in April unanimously voted in favor of initiating the process of returning the land, which is currently used as LA County lifeguard administrative offices. 

Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of the Bruce family who serves as its spokesperson, hailed the legislative progress of SB 796. 

The Charles and Willa Bruce family, and I, are elated at the outcome and prayerful that the Governor will sign the bill as soon as possible so we can move on to the next steps in making the transfer happen, which will involve working with the County of Los Angeles and our legal teams to ensure a smooth and permanent transition,” Shepard said, noting that the significance of the legislation goes far beyond this parcel of land. “This is a victory for the faithful and oppressed in this country that has been long in coming, for 450 years. “ 

Shepard issued a long list of thanks — to God, Hahn, to Bradford and all the state leaders who worked on the bill, to both Kavon Ward and former Manhattan Beach Mayor Mitch Ward, as well as the City-appointed Bruce’s Beach Task Force and historian Allison Rose Jefferson, whose book “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era” helped keep the nearly lost history of what occurred at Bruce’s Beach alive. 

The City of Manhattan Beach had no official statement on the legislation. But City Attorney Quinn Barrow has previously suggested that no legislation could overcome a deed restriction the city had attached to the transfer of the property in 1948. 

“The City transferred the property to the State in 1948 for ‘use as a public beach or park only,’ City Attorney Quinn Barrow said in April, when the legislative process was launched. . 

Former Manhattan Beach council member Mark Burton, who was an attorney for the City of Los Angeles for 32 years, has argued that the transfer could not be done legally. He has argued that such a transfer would represent an illegal gift of public funds. 

“Our State has this essential public finance restriction to assure that taxpayer funds or taxpayer-owned land be for public purposes,” Burton wrote in a letter to the editor in Easy Reader in April. “In a nutshell, that’s the significant legal and policy conundrum for our state, or any state, that wants to provide reparations. To amend our State Constitution to permit reparations, a ballot measure may be needed, not just a statute.” 

Hahn and County Counsel Rodrigo Castro-Silva, via email, rejected both arguments. 

I look at this not as a gift of public funds, but as returning property, albeit 100 years later, that was wrongfully taken from the Bruces because of their race,” Hahn said. “It is in the public’s interest to address racial discrimination whenever possible, and we have the opportunity to do that here by returning this property to the Bruce family.” 

 The County is working with the State legislature to ensure that the County has the legal authority to return the Bruces’ property to their legal heirs,” Castro-Silva said. “Assertions that the Board of Supervisors would be engaging in illegal activity if the Board returned the property to the family are without merit.” 

Shepard also issued a final, more pointed thank you to Manhattan Beach’s elected leaders, and the anonymous group that arose in opposition of the Bruce’s Beach movement. 

 ”I personally would like to thank members of the Manhattan Beach City Council who supported Mayor Suzanne Hadley’s obstructionist efforts to suppress the verified historical facts documenting the racism that Charles and Willa Bruce were victims of, and empowering the retrograde group of ‘Concerned Residents of Manhattan Beach‘ whose full page ads in the local press exposed a stunning lack of empathy for your fellow man and continued adherence to the tenets of Jim Crow,” Shepard said. “Their actions reflect an aversion to civility and human decency, and a mean-spiritedness which has kept this story more alive in the international media than I could ever have.” ER 

 

 

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