Manhattan Beach History Advisory Board’s report on Bruce’s Beach approved
by Mark McDermott
No definitive history exists of what occurred a century ago at Bruce’s Beach, specifically regarding the City of Manhattan Beach’s racially motivated dispossession of oceanfront land, owned by Willa and Charles Bruce and six other African American families.
But the City Council on Tuesday night accepted a report on those events compiled by the History Advisory Board, an outgrowth of the council-appointed Bruce’s Beach Task Force, as the most definitive history thus far compiled, and a significant step forward in the city’s attempt to come to terms with the darkest chapter in its history.
Councilperson Hildy Stern, the co-chair of the Task Force, expressed “extreme appreciation and respect” for the work completed by the Advisory Board. She cited the praise the report drew after review by several professional historians and said that its completion represented a new beginning for the City.
“We started this journey almost a year ago, after our first community forum last July,” Stern said. “Those of us on council at the time all recognized that we have work to do and that we can certainly do better. A first step in that regard was to create the Bruce’s Beach Task Force to start the path of confronting our history. This report is that history. This is our opportunity now to not be afraid of that history but rather to fully accept it and learn from it.”
Stern read aloud the feedback provided by Dr. Anthony Lee, a retired professor of African American history from UCLA and a Task Force member, who wrote that he’d worked with the Advisory Board to shape the report.
“I know that the members of the committee have worked diligently and tirelessly to produce a final report free of bias and partisanship,” Lee wrote. “They have donated hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours of tedious research to this effort. They have discovered new documents and contemporary reports that have thrown new light on the history of Bruce’s Beach and its residents. They have at all times acted with honesty and integrity, consulting professionals like myself, Dr. Allison Rose Jefferson and others.”
The president of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, Gary McAulay, also wrote in support of the report.
“The History Advisory Board endeavored to cut through the misinformation that has accumulated around this terrible stain on Manhattan Beach’s history,” he wrote. “They worked hard to substantiate previously uncorroborated stories and folklore. Tremendous amounts of time and effort went into this project.”
The 75-page report was compiled by Lindsey Fox, Isla Garraway, Kristin Long Drew, and Tyler St. Bernhard, with additional research by Allison Hales. It is dispassionately written and painstakingly sourced, utilizing but also going beyond what was previously the primary document regarding the events at Bruce’s Beach from 1912 to 1927, Robert Brigham’s 1956 master’s thesis, “Land Ownership and Occupancy by Negroes in Manhattan Beach.” Its bibliography, alone, is eight pages, citing an extensive array of public records, court documents, newspapers, scholarship, correspondence, maps, and census statistics.
“History is never perfect or perfectly known,” said Councilperson Steve Napolitano, who was also co-chair of the Task Force. “We asked these folks to do exactly what they’ve done, and they went above and beyond in putting together history that, in the details, [was] not known before. I defy anyone else, especially anyone who’s criticizing them, to go out and do what they’ve done. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their work. Unfortunately, some of them have been paid back with anonymous scorn asking to do exactly what they’ve been complaining about the entire time, which is dragging this out further by hiring some mythical, unbiased third party historian, ignoring the fact that this has been reviewed by professional historians…They’ve claimed bias and inaccuracy while offering no facts refuting the work. ”
Napolitano was referring to another round of emails from an anonymous group that first emerged with anonymous full page newspaper ads around the time the Task Force was formed. The anonymous group conflates the Task Force with a newly established group, MB United, founded by six former Task Force members, including Lee, and former councilperson Amy Howorth. MB United’s stated goal is to “advocate for racial and social justice and strengthen the City’s voice against hate,” which the anonymous group claims is a power grab by “the Woke minority” to enforce “Critical Race Theory” that teaches children “that the most important thing about them is their skin color” and essentially creates a race problem where none exists. The group this week attacked the History Advisory Board’s report’s credibility, accused it of using uncorroborated sourcing, and called for a review by “third party history professionals,” which, in fact, has already occurred. The council agenda item included reviews in support of the report by three professional historians from UCLA and one from USC. The latter, Dr. Ariela Gross, the John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, explicitly praised the report’s methodology.
“The Committee went far beyond reliance on the secondary sources, scouring newspapers, census records, titles and deeds, court records, manuscript paper collections, and all other available primary sources to corroborate the oral histories,” she wrote. “In the majority of cases, they were able to find evidence to corroborate these sources; in cases where they were not, they were always careful to make clear which aspects of the story depend on a single witness. This is precisely the way historians use such sources, and their use of evidence accords with the standards of the field. The history they have written is not only careful and judicious, but it tracks closely with everything we know about the history of Black landownership and Jim Crow in Southern California.”
One of the residents targeted by the anonymous group, Jen Dohner, defended the report and suggested that anonymity of the criticism itself has racist undertones.
“The single voice the opposition has raised against the report doesn’t hold a candle to the legitimacy of the extensive panel of experts that has peer reviewed and approved it,” Dohner said. “To try to [anonymously attack] this is an act of whitewashing, which cloaks and therefore perpetuates the racism it seeks to deny exists. On a personal note, whether or not you agree with my stance on this issue, I hope you will agree with at least this — anonymous attacks on our residents have no place in our civil discourse.”
Dohner said the “email cowards” direct attacks on her represented a veiled threat to her safety and suggested those who read the emails question the legitimacy of sources who refuse to identify themselves. She finished by directly addressing the anonymous email group.
“I say get my name out of your mouth, and kindly insert your own,” she said.
Howorth called the emails disinformation.
“I am using that term intentionally,” she said. “It is not a mistake, it is not misinformation. It is designed to purposely dis-inform people.”
Councilperson Joe Franklin did not express direct support for the anonymous opposition, but did argue on behalf of the same demand — that the council not accept the history report until it had hired a third party, independent historian to review and approve the report. He referenced part of the letter from Dr. Gross in which she suggested some additional resources for further historical context, which he said is in keeping with what the anonymous opposition has suggested.
“The criticism from the, I assume, conservative critics is that you’ve taken this history out of context,” Franklin said. “And the specific context is that Manhattan Beach might have been bad, but other cities were worse.”
Mayor Suzanne Hadley said the report represented the best history yet told of Bruce’s Beach.
This notion that we’re going to just pass this off to some mythical, impeccable, unimpeachable historian for a perfect report is really just that — it is a myth,” she said. “I don’t buy into that. All humans are fallible. All humans have biases. And historians have about the most biases, because it’s all words, and a lot of it is point of view. And unless you stick to the sources, contemporary sources that printed things in real time back then, then you are going to be led astray, embroidering or narrating or telling the story and adding your input. But if you like a recitation of facts and where they’re from and their data and their pictures and quotations, then I think we’re on pretty firm ground. I know the history is not pretty…. I know it’s not what I would like to think of my hometown 100 years ago. But I do read the context. I do know that this history is not unusual.”
Franklin tried unsuccessfully to introduce a friendly amendment requiring further study to a motion by Stern to accept the report.
“I don’t know what we’re afraid of,” Franklin said. “We’re afraid of spending a little bit of money to get a report as accurate as possible…from what we would all hope to be an unbiased source? Certainly we’ve seen bias in this whole process. If you’re going to say no, you’re not being true to yourself. There has been bias in this entire process.”
The motion passed 4-1, with Franklin opposing.
Napolitano said the report would remain a living document and can be added to at any time.
“If anybody can show that they are wrong or it can be better, they are welcome to do that…This is open source history here,” he said. “Anybody can review and take a look at it.”
To read the report, go to www.CityMB.info/government/city-manager/bruce-s-beach-task-force.
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