Mark McDermott

Manhattan Beach City Council takes in painful history of Bruce’s Beach

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Manhattan Beach resident Chris O’Brien proposed a peace and reconciliation conference center within a hotel. The Bruce Family would receive a royalty for the use of their name. Illustration by Zoe Kalamaros.

by Mark McDermott

An often visibly moved Manhattan Beach City Council took in a full, unvarnished history of Bruce’s Beach Tuesday night, the story of how Willa and Charles Bruce built a seaside dream and real life respite for fellow African Americans in the second and third decades of the last century and then had everything taken from them because of the color of their skin. 

The history lesson was delivered by an unlikely source, the city’s young senior analyst, Alexandria Latranga, a fact noted by several residents and activists who sought African American historian Alison Rose Jefferson. But Jefferson, after agreeing to a $2,000 honorarium to give a history Bruce’s Beach, refused to do the presentation unless the City did not make primary source material —  a 1956 college dissertation by longtime local history teacher Robert Bringham titled “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach, California” —  available to residents as part of its staff report. And so the City turned to its own staff to tell the tale of its racist past. 

Councilperson Nancy Hersman, who assisted in the research, said the city proceeded without a historian simply as a starting point in a community-wide discussion not only about what occurred at Bruce’s Beach but what might be done to reconcile that tortured past with the present moment. She acknowledged that the plaque erected at Bruce’s Beach —  which suggests that city founder George Peck “made it possible” for the Bruce’s to own the property and fails to mention the family was forced to leave due to racism —  tells an inaccurate history, as did a previous plaque erected before the park was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2006.  

“Some have said  the history cannot be told by the city, that we may be biased or will try to hide the truth,” Hersman said. “They look at when the plaque was placed at the park, and then again when the new plaque was made, as evidence that we can’t tell the story. And I agree that the history was not told either time. But I’d like to think it’s a different time, this time. At least I hope so. And as I said at the beginning, white Americans are looking at the racial and justices that have been brought against African Americans throughout history. And Bruce’s speech is our history. So once we’ve heard what happened in the ‘20s in Manhattan Beach, the City Council can then discuss next steps.” 

Latranga, who has worked as an analyst for the City for two years and previously spent nearly a dozen years as an ethics program manager for the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, as well as a year as an adjunct political science professor at Mt. San Antonio College, began with a Native American, Spanish, and Mexican history of the area and then narrowed the focus to the events that occurred on two city blocks Manhattan Beach early last century. 

A chart from Robert Brigham’s 1956 Fresno State master’s thesis, titled “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach.” The chart shows assessed property values increasing from $1.6 million in 1914 to $13.5 million in 1950 ($150,515 million in today’s dollars). The city’s current assessed evaluation in 2018 was $18.6 billion.

On February 15, 2012, nearly 10 months before Manhattan Beach was incorporated as a city, Willa Bruce purchased the first of two oceanside lots between 26th and 27th Street. She paid $1,250 for the lot, which was on the so-called “Peck tract” originally owned by George Peck. She told the LA Times that year that her search for land in Manhattan Beach had met many obstacles, according to an article Latranga found in her research. 

“Whenever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Bruce said. “But I own this land, and I am going to keep it.”

Bruce said that it was unjust that African Americans should not be allowed “to have a little breathing space at the seaside where they might have a little holiday.” 

The city at that time had no paved streets; Highland Avenue would be paved the next year. Latranga estimated that 600 people resided in town, most of whom were part-time residents living in small cottages or sheds built for weekends and “summer leisure.” 

“The history is not clear whether she and her husband Charles Bruce were the first African American residents in Manhattan Beach but clearly one of the first and [Willa] was considered a pioneer by many because of her entrepreneur spirit,” Latranga said. “Mr. And Mrs. Bruce built a two story building with accommodations for dancing upstairs and a cafe downstairs on the first lot in 1913, known as Bruce’s Lodge.” 

Thus began what Brigham, in his thesis, sardonically referred to as the “invasion” of Manhattan Beach. Bruce’s Lodge was immediately popular, so much so that Willa would buy the adjoining lot with the intention of expanding and other African American families bought nearby lots on the hill above. This would become a problem among white locals. 

“The Bruce’s successful business of renting bathing suits, umbrellas and other beach items as well as later a dining hall and small overnight accommodation became a very popular thing for African American Angelenos on weekends in the summer, because there was limited access for African Americans on the beach,” Latranga said. In Southern California, Bruce’s Beach, as it was becoming known, was very popular. According to one resident, the business was a source of considerable income for its owners, the Bruces. Many African American families enjoyed the beach facilities at Bruce’s Beach and by 1919, six African American families moved to Manhattan Beach.” 

Among the new residents was Major George Prioleau, a former slave who after the Civil War became one of the first African American chaplains to serve in the U.S. Army. Another of the new residents, the widow Mary R. Sanders, was a successful entrepreneur in her own right, according to Brigham, with a popular catering business in Los Angeles. She also offered lodging. 

“As Manhattan Beach became more and more popular among Los Angeles’s African American families, the resentment and fear among white townspeople became increasingly evident,” Latranga said. “Violence  and discrimination [against] the African American families on the beach, or to make it more difficult for them to remain, increased…The beach in front of Bruce’s Lodge was actually roped off at both ends to limit the beach area that African Americans could use. Many African American beachgoers returned from the beach to find the air had been left out of the tires. There was a report of a house belonging to an African American that was burned in the 1920s.” 

The Klu Klux Klan by this time was gaining popularity locally; according to Brigham, a “Manhattan Klan” chapter was active, and chapters likewise were formed in Hermosa and Redondo Beach. Latranga’s PowerPoint showed an advertisement, which ran in the Manhattan Beach News, for a Klan rally in Hermosa in 1924. “They drew thousands and thousands of Klansmen,” Latranga said.  

A burning cross appeared outside Bruce’s Lodge. One Klansman reportedly attempted to burn down the property, lighting a mattress on fire underneath one of the buildings, according to Brigham. “This produced a lot of smoke, but the only fire was in the eyes of Mrs. Bruce as she greeted the white spectators,” Brigham reports. 

The City was taking part in the harassment. Ten minute parking signs were placed in the neighborhood, and the then-City Council (called the Board of Trustees) in 1924 passed an ordinance forbidding any further bath houses or places of amusement east of the Pacific Electric railroad tracks —  the rails between the beach and the Strand, which happened to be right where the Bruce’s property, which was expanding, was located. Finally, a real estate agent who’d arrived in town in 1920 began pursuing a more final solution to the “invasion” through legislative means. 

“If any one man can be singled out as the leader in the eventual successful bid to retard Negro development in Manhattan Beach, George Lindsey is that man,” Bingham wrote. 

Lindsey first approached the Trustees in 1921 suggesting measures be taken to remove African Americans from Manhattan Beach. But it wasn’t until 1923 that he proposed an idea that they found workable —  condemning the land the Bruces and their neighbors owned. Lindsey brought a petition suggesting condemnation in November 15, 1923; the Board introduced an ordinance doing just that on Jan. 3, 1924. It took most the rest of that year for the matter to move through its legislative process. By November, the City filed a lawsuit pursuing condemnation. It took five years, but in 1929, the effort was successful. 

“The condemnation covered 30 lots in the track, five owned by African American families,” Latranga said. “And they either had cottages on their lots, or the two lots of Bruce’s Lodge. The other 25 lots were owned by white owners and none of them had buildings on them.” 

Under the law of eminent domain through which the City took the land, the property owners all received compensation —  ranging from $1,273 for a single lot to $14,500 for the Bruce’s two lots. The Bruce’s sought $70,000 for their property and $50,000 in damages. All the other families bought property elsewhere in town. The Bruces left. 

The Los Angeles African American community was keenly aware of what was occurring at Bruce’s Beach. In 1927, NAACP hosted a “swim-in” in protest at which a young Black woman was arrested for swimming off Bruce’s Beach. But after the settlement, the matter quietly faded from public consciousness, largely until Brigham’s master’s thesis. One of the Manhattan Beach trustees, Frank Daugherty, told the Redondo Reflex in 1948 that condemnation was specifically meant to rid Manhattan Beach of Blacks. 

“We tried to buy them out, but they would not sell,” he said, in a press clipping exhibited by Latranga. “We had to acquire these two blocks to solve the problem. So we voted to condemn them, and we made a city park there. We had to protect ourselves. Our attorney advised the members of the council never to admit the real purpose in establishing the park, especially during the council meeting.” 

That park wouldn’t be established until after Brigham started asking questions in the 1950s. In his thesis, Brigham, who moved to Manhattan Beach as an elementary school kid in 1939, wrote that the vacant lot had always made him wonder. 

“My casual questions were met with a shrug of the shoulders, or furrowed brow or sometimes a sly smile, and the curiosity grew until it gave birth to a formal study,” he wrote.

 

 Hersman, who helped Latranga with the research, said that the thesis is an invaluable document. 

“There are some who have questions about some of what he wrote,” she said. “But it’s closer to the actual time in history than most of our other resources.” 

“It is painful to hear that this city did this in 1924,” Hersman said. “What can we do today? I’m not sure the direction that we want to take.” 

“I read with horror the treatment of Willa Bruce and Mary Sanders and Major Prioleau and Elizabeth Patterson, the Johnsons and the Slaughters,” said Councilperson Hildy Stern.”There were burning crosses and slashing tires and burning mattresses, there was violence and intimidation and the Ku Klux Klan and an opposition. And that is horrifying. It is incredibly painful to listen to that having happened anywhere, but certainly having happened here…, So now, here we are, we’ve heard the history and truly It is our history that shaped the Manhattan Beach that we are today.” 

“Are we willing to learn more?” Stern asked. Are we willing to understand deeply? Yes, we’re being challenged to take specific actions. But I’m grateful for that challenge, because it has compelled this conversation. We’re hearing concerns ranging from making a public statement, correct the plaque, provide education, provide restitution and restorative justice, return the property…We have work to do. So, what is that work? How can we be better? Can we make a difference? And how do we adjust the questions of justice and racial equality? This is really an opportunity not to just look at our past, but an opportunity now for us to make a difference in the lives of others currently.It’s not an attempt to stir up trouble. It’s an opportunity to move forward to a solution to be better to extend ourselves and to celebrate how we have the best of our future together.” 

The council faced demands from dozens of young activists to return the land to the Bruces and provide restitution for lost income, and a Change.org petition demanding these actions has collected 12,500 signatures. On Tuesday, resident Chris O’Brien suggested another way forward. 

“The idea would be to have a hotel resort called Bruce’s Beach and a peace and reconciliation conference center within that hotel,” O’Brien said. “It would be a boutique hotel on the land that currently is occupied by the park.

It would be a hotel with an emphasis on inclusivity, both to African American customers and other historically discriminated against communities. This would generate millions of dollars a year to the city. My idea is the peace and reconciliation conference center is a place to lead a national dialogue on questions of justice, and within that a thinker-in-residence program actually inviting artists and writers and thought leaders to stay in the hotel in the summer and in the winter and help lead this.” 

O’Brien said the Bruce family would receive royalty payment for the use of their name. 

“The idea here is to take what’s probably the darkest chapter in our history as a town, and really right a historical wrong while at the same time helping us to lead the national dialogue that so desperately has to take place,” he said.  

Resident Lorcan Kilmartin urged the council to be bold. 

“The existing steep sloping park that we call Bruce’s Beach makes no sense,” Kilmartin said. “I always wondered why it even existed. It’s adjacent to 40 acres of beach, and a few blocks away is Live Oak Park, a flat park where you can play basketball without a missed shot resulting in the ball speeding downhill. I urge council members to be creative and bold in the quest for restorative justice. And I urge you to be as bold and aggressive in repairing this injustice as the city was bold and aggressive in driving out the Bruces In other black families. Restorative justice and reparations are not a theoretical wish list, but an established legal process that has been enacted many times in the US and globally. Both the US and Canada have been given money and land to various native tribes and Japanese Americans. Austria and Germany has provided cash payments to descendants of Holocaust victims. And yet enslaved Africans and their descendants have received nothing. I never want to be someone who spoke at a city council meeting, but here we are.” 

Councilperson Steve Napolitano expressed doubt that the City could legally give away the Bruce’s Beach land —  the actual lots are now an LA County Lifeguard headquarters, he noted —  or money for historical reparation. Like the rest of the council, he didn’t directly address the much bigger picture issues, but instead focused on what could be done more immediately: a rewriting of the plaque, possibly commissioning public art to more accurately and fully tell the story of Bruce’s Beach, renaming the city street and reservoir named after George Peck, and the issuance of a public apology from the City to the Bruce family and other African American families impacted by what happened. 

“I think an apology from the city, representing the city for the racist acts of others in the past, is important to help reconcile that, too,” he said. “And again, that’s separate from the idea of any current issues of racism or exclusion that we need to address regarding inclusion….These are beginning things that I think we should talk about. I think there are opportunities for scholarships and things like that as well, but I think first things first…it’s recognizing what the past really was, and how we can make it better in terms of recognition, which we haven’t done adequately so far.” 

The council agreed that one of the first steps would be establishing at least two task forces to begin tackling the questions of how to proceed. Mayor Richard Montgomery agreed that a public apology was a good place to start, and noted that he was on the council 14 years ago when Bruce’s Beach was renamed and the idea of an apology was raised but not pursued —  in part, as Councilperson Suzanne Hadley noted, because then-mayor Mitch Ward, the city’s first (and so far only) African American mayor spearheaded the renaming and did not want an apology issued. 

Montgomery apologized for not better pursuing an apology 14 years ago and vowed that this Council would do better.

“I think we are on the right path,” he said. “But it is an important first step.” ER

 

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