Manhattan Beach City Council rejects apology regarding Bruce’s Beach

Bruce’s Beach, circa 1912. Photo courtesy the Manhattan Beach Historical Society

by Mark McDermott 

Nearly three hours of public testimony had already occurred at Tuesday night’s Manhattan Beach City Council meeting before councilmembers took up the question of whether or not to issue an apology to the Bruce family and other Black families displaced by the City from their beachfront homes a century ago. 

Several more hours of testimony had been taken at the March 16 council meeting. For months, the issue had embroiled the community and captured national attention. In-depth stories on Bruce’s Beach were published in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times regarding the council’s attempts to address the racially-motivated misdeed that the city perpetrated in 1924, when the city utilized eminent domain to wrest away land from the burgeoning Black community at Bruce’s Beach resort. An anonymous group called Concerned Residents of MB had run full-page advertisements arguing against an apology and sent out group emails that suggested the racial history of the incident had been overblown as an attempt by “the woke mob” to grab power. 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano, the co-chair of the Bruce’s Beach Task Force formed last August and the only member of the council who is a Manhattan Beach native, was the first elected official to publicly call for an apology. He was the first among his colleagues to speak Tuesday night. 

Napolitano said his “heart hurt” over the mischaracterizations and divide that had arisen in the community over the issue. He then tried to provide context for “why we are here tonight” by beginning with the most direct first-hand account of what occurred at Bruce’s Beach, an article written in 1945 for the Redondo Reflex newspaper by Frank Doherty, who served on the Manhattan Beach Council at the time of Bruce’s Beach. Doherty titled his article “The Negro Problem.” 

“At one time, we thought that the Negro problem was going to stop our progress,” Doherty wrote. “And they erected a large building at the end of 27th Street using the first floor for a dressing room for bathing and the entire second floor for a dining room and kitchen…They came here in truckloads with banners flying, Bound for Manhattan Beach. We tried to buy them out, but they would not sell. There were several families in the blocks between 26th and 27th streets and between Strand and Highland. We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem, so we voted to condemn them and make a city park there. We had to protect ourselves. Our attorney advised members of the council never to admit the real purpose and establishment of the park, especially during the council meetings.”  

Doherty wrote that it cost the city about $75,000 “to settle this problem.” Two decades later, the matter of Bruce’s Beach still weighed on his conscience.

Charles and Willa Bruce. Photo from City of Manhattan Beach staff report

“Those Negroes were Americans and had as much right to be here as we did,” he wrote. “I always felt that it was a mean trick to make them leave their homes. But it was the only way out. Being a member of the board, I had to participate or give up Manhattan Beach. I always thought that was the meanest thing I ever did, but I suppose I had to, and always thought the same way about it.” 

Napolitano said the reason the council was now revisiting the matter was not that the city had taken part in condemning the properties, but the underlying racist motivations for why it had done so. 

“I do support an apology for the actions taken by the city, as described by Frank Doherty,” Napolitano said. “And no, I’m not some far-left pinko commie apologist for white snowflakes trying to get ahead in politics. That’s not why I do it. That’s how I think, that’s how I was raised…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. I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know how anyone can hear Frank Doherty’s words and disagree with that.” 

Napolitano, who is an attorney, said there were plenty of examples of apologies by governments, including Ronald Reagan’s apology to Japanese-Americans for internment during WWII, and said that he’d been assured by City Attorney Quinn Barrow that a properly worded apology didn’t make the city more legally vulnerable to a lawsuit. 

“I have offered up an apology that, as I said before, has been determined to pose no liability to the city,” Napolitano said. “I am not married to it. I’m fine with editing…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.” 

Both the larger task force and its other co-chair, Mayor Pro Tem Hildy Stern, also submitted draft apology resolutions. Councilperson Joe Franklin offered a different proposed resolution —  an acknowledgment and condemnation, rather than an apology. 

“Let’s start by recognizing the wrong and expressing sincere regret,” Stern said. “One hundred years ago we turned our back on black residents. That is our unique history in Manhattan Beach.” 

Stern said acknowledgment had already occurred of how the Bruces were deprived of the economic opportunity to develop their business and how the city’s action broadcasted that Black people were not welcome in Manhattan Beach. But she also tied that history to more recent events —  the racism students have reported experiencing on MBUSD campuses, the racial epithets recently hurled at Black surfers locally, the unwarranted police stops many Black people have reported experiencing in the city, and the hate crime the Clinton family endured when their home was firebombed in 2015. 

“I want to state this very clearly because I can just imagine where I will be misrepresented by the Concerned Residents of Manhattan Beach: I also believe in our community,” Stern said. “We are a community of neighbors that care about each other and look out for each other. So now that we are hearing these hidden stories, the caring, welcoming compassionate Manhattan Beach that I know would care if neighbors, friends or family members have these experiences.” 

Stern said an apology represented an opportunity for the city to move forward. 

“This is how we come together as a community to do what we can’t do on our own, to do something that has meaning,” she said. “This is about decency. We have nothing to fear in issuing an apology. The only thing we have to fear is if we don’t apologize, then we send a message that this city and certainly this council does not care about a path forward. This is our moment.” 

Franklin’s proposed acknowledgment replaced the word “apologizing” with “condemning.”

“We are at a crossroads,” Franklin said. “Do we use the word ‘acknowledgment’ or ‘apology’ to describe what we all know to be racist acts 100 years ago? That Bruce’s Beach Resort even existed in the 1920s when segregation was the law of the land, and other seaside cities turned them away, is a testament to the courage and fortitude of Willa Bruce and her family. Credit also belongs to the accepting attitude of a number of the 600 residents in Manhattan Beach at the time…We can’t paint the entire city at that time, or today, with the broad brush of racism.” 

Franklin said that bad and even immoral acts were undertaken by some residents and city leaders but also said that piecing together what actually occurred has been difficult. 

“But there was one thing of which we are certain: no resident living in Manhattan Beach now is responsible for the racist actions of 100 years ago,” Franklin said. 

Franklin argued this was why an acknowledgment made more sense than an apology. 

“It is not for the Manhattan Beach residents of today to apologize for what the residents from 100 years ago have done,” he said. “That’s not right. It’s difficult for me to believe that one can sincerely apologize for something they have not done. It rings hollow. No one living here today in Manhattan Beach did those things to the Bruce family and others. What is needed is an acknowledgment and condemnation of the racist acts of the past. If we acknowledge and condemn those actions, we can learn from them and move on and endeavor to do better in our time.” 

Mayor Suzanne Hadley had come out strongly against an apology at the council’s previous meeting. “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 16 meeting. On Tuesday night she further argued that an apology would leave the city vulnerable to a lawsuit. She said she understood the semantic difference between an apology and an acknowledgement, but her concern was more about the legal difference. 

“I hear all of you who want an apology,” Hadley said. “I totally get it. I’m a mom; I get the power of an apology. I’m a Christian, I get the power of apology. I agree with the obligation to apologize. I’ve been married 28 years, trust me, I’ve apologized plenty and I’ve expected my husband to apologize. The difference here though, is that that word in California law comes with a lot of baggage. And I’m not an attorney. I’m not litigious, I have not contributed to decades of case law around a single word. My hands are clean. But that word is a club that we can be handing to people to beat us with.” 

That left Councilperson Richard Montgomery as the swing vote. Montgomery is the only current councilperson who served on the 2006 council that renamed the park Bruce’s Beach, the city’s first tacit acknowledgment of the land’s tragic history. Last August, Montgomery said that that the former council had not gone far enough. But on Tuesday, he argued that issuing an apology would be going too far, and would go beyond what he believes residents want to do. 

“I don’t vote based on emails or phone calls but talking to residents,” Montgomery said. “I’m sitting in line at Red Carpet Car Wash or Two Guns Coffee and the general consensus, by far, was acknowledgement. I didn’t talk to every resident. I don’t think any of us have. But I kind of do my own polling and say, ‘What do you think about this?’  Remember, the silent majority in our city does not speak. They vote.”

Montgomery alluded to a potential lawsuit, saying that the council’s duty is to protect the city and its residents at all costs, and said that an acknowledgement is ultimately the same thing as an apology. 

“You regretfully acknowledge what happened in our history. No one here is not doing that, folks,” Montgomery said. “We’re all doing that. And be sincere and our remorse, and our expression of remorse, and asking for forgiveness…The last thing I want to say is we have to remember the wrong and express sincere regret. I’m here to do that. I think all of us are there. And I’m very careful for the next step.” 

As it became clear that Franklin’s acknowledgement and condemnation had majority support, Napolitano and Stern focused on changing some of the wording. Napolitano successfully motioned to remove a passage in the acknowledgement that recounted some of the history of Bruce’s Beach, noting that “All owners were paid fair market value or higher for their properties as determined by the Los Angeles County Superior Court.” 

“That’s just basically saying, ‘Well, it’s okay. They got paid for it,’” Napolitano said. “Again, it’s not about the condemnation….It’s about the racial motivation behind the condemnation.” 

Franklin accepted that change but rejected the removal of two words Stern sought. Franklin’s text largely mirrored both Napolitano’s and Stern’s, minus the word “apology,” but included the insertion of the word “reported” describing the acts of harassment that began occurring to the Bruces and the Black patrons of their resort beginning in 1912, and the insertion of the word “ostensible” to describe the purpose of those acts as being to make Manhattan Beach inhospitable to Black people. 

Franklin said he’d thought long and hard about those words and had chosen them carefully. He said the history is not yet established and the council is still waiting for the final report from the Task Force. He rejected Stern’s motion to remove those words. 

“We’ve received the history report. We did not accept it yet,” Franklin said. 

Stern had further suggested revisions but was cut off by Mayor Hadley, who called for a vote, which passed 4-1. A visibly shaken Stern was the only opposing vote, although Napolitano suggested he suspected a future council would one day issue an apology. 

“This is incredibly disturbing to see how this has unfolded, and this lack of intention on an acknowledgment,” Stern said. “I am voting no.” ER 

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