The second life of Bruce’s Beach

An Amazon mini-series will focus on what occurred in Manhattan Beach a century ago

by Mark McDermott 

First of two parts 

Willa Bruce bought oceanfront land between 26th and 27th Street in Manhattan Beach on February 15, 1912, 10 months before the city was incorporated. She had a vision for the property as a respite for Black folks during an unjust time, “a little breathing space at the seaside where they might have a little holiday,” Bruce told the Los Angeles Times shortly after obtaining the property. Photos of Willa and her husband, Charles, show an elegant couple with a world-wise, yet resolute look in their eyes, traits which would be put to a test both before and after the purchase. 

“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.”

By 1919, Bruce’s Beach was bustling, and six more African American families had joined the Bruces as property owners and residents at the beach. It was a colorful cast of characters, which included 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 (in the Ninth Cavalry, the all Black regiments known as “Buffalo Soldiers”), and the widow Mary R. Sanders, who was a successful catering entrepreneur in her own right. But many of the residents of Manhattan Beach, including its city leadership, regarded the development as a “negro invasion.” Conflict ensued. 

If this sounds like the script for a movie, it may be about to become one. The story of the Bruces’ tragically doomed efforts to keep their land over the next decade —  in the face of pressure to leave from the Ku Klux Klan, local law enforcement, and eventually city leaders — is in development as a scripted Amazon mini-series. Plan B Entertainment, the studio founded by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, has begun work on a historically-based Bruce’s Beach series slated to air by the end of next year. Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions is partnering on the project. 

Anthony Bruce, Willa and Charles’s great grandson and their only living direct descendent, will serve as a consultant on the series. Family member and spokesperson Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard will serve as a consulting producer. Shepard’s brother, Jason Jones, who is a screenwriter, will also serve as a consultant.

“I look forward to this TV project because it will be an opportunity to showcase the depth of the Bruce family story,” said Anthony Bruce. “I trust that people will learn the truth, not only about others, but about themselves, as well.”

Amazon Studios has optioned Alison Rose Jefferson’s book “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era,” which includes a chapter on Bruce’s Beach, as source material for the series. Jefferson will also serve as a consulting producer. According to Deadline.com, which first reported on the project,  Plan B’s Gabby Shepard and JuVee’s Andrew Wang will executive produce.

Neely Swanson, a Manhattan Beach-based movie reviewer and a veteran of the television industry, said Plan B is known both as one of Hollywood’s most progressive studios and the “gold standard” of independent film. The studio has won the Academy Award for Best Picture three times, including for the films “12 Years a Slave” and “Moonlight,” and has also delivered critically acclaimed projects on African American history with “Underground Railroad” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

Swanson said not every project in development makes it to the screen, but if this one does, viewers can expect something hard-hitting. 

“If this production goes forward, Manhattan Beach should be quaking,” Swanson said. “Because this is an uncompromising, A-list company with a soul.” 

Beachgoers in front of Bruce’s Lodge circa 1920. Photo from the Merriam Matthews Photograph Collection/UCLA

JuVee is likewise a well-respected player in the entertainment industry. Viola Davis is the first African American to win the “triple crown” of acting awards —  an Academy, Tony, and Emmy Award —  and the production company has created such projects as ABC’s American Koko about “sticky racial situtions in a post-racial America” (with the tagline, “Everybody is a little racist”) and Emanuel, the documentary about the white supremist shooting at a church in Charleson, South Carolina, in which nine Black parishinors were killed. 

The project is occurring in part because Plan B executive producer Gabby Shepard attended a rally last summer organized by the Justice for Bruce’s Beach Movement. She met activist Kaitlyn McQuown, who put her in touch with Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, who is a veteran actor and already had the idea of telling the story of Bruce’s Beach to a larger audience through television. Things progressed quickly as Plan B shopped the series and JuVee signed on as co-producers and then Amazon Studios came on board. 

“This is phenomenal for us, for little guys who are not big stars in the industry and big producers to be able to pull something like this off,” said Shepard, who, as an actor, had worked with Pitt on the film “Seven” albeit in a small role. “You know, African Americans in this country don’t have many opportunities to do something where they’re in control. And so to have something like this happen is just elating to us.” 

Shepard said the idea from the beginning was to find a way to get the story of Willa and Charles Bruce and the community members at Bruce’s Beach out to a larger public. Between the national attention the issue has already received, LA County and the State of California’s efforts to return the land, and now this Amazon series, that idea has succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes. 

“It is a Hollywood ending. It gives us an opportunity to give voice to the victims,” Shepard said.  “Because the victims just are not heard in any of the public discourse that’s going on now, especially with Manhattan Beach, and their historical committee, as well. So this gives us an opportunity to let Charles and Willa and the residents who were affected by all these incidents speak on their own behalf as to what happened and to show themselves as four dimensional human beings. That’s something that’s very important to this story, that people are aware of what actually happened, not just what’s been reported in the newspaper.” 

The Bruces’ dream 

The story of Charles and Willa Bruce has over the past year made its way into both the national and local press. The telling of their story has focused largely on the events surrounding the family’s founding of Bruce’s Beach in 1912 and its loss, through the City of Manhattan Beach’s racially motivated use of eminent domain, in 1927. But the significance of Bruce’s Beach and why the impact of its loss lingers a century later is better understood through a deeper dive into who the Bruces were, the forces that brought them to the beach, and the forces that eventually denied them their dream. 

Charles and Willa Bruce met in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and married there in 1886. Charles was from Washington, D.C. He was born in 1860, and both his father and grandfather had been free men, according to Bruce family records. Willa was from Missouri. She was born in 1862. Her mother had been a slave. History does not record her father, whether he was a fellow slave, or a master, as was often the case. 

Albuquerque was a small frontier town at the time, with a population of about 3,700. It was also a railroad town and likely where Charles began his occupation serving as a chef on trains. 

Rail lines served as a vital cog for Black America during this time. Most of the porters and cooks who worked on the trains were Black, and they helped circulate what was known at the time as “Race papers,” small weekly newspapers that covered the news among African American communities throughout the nation. This was news that white-owned papers rarely included. 

Two African American couples standing on a walkway at Bruce’s Beach, Manhattan Beach, circa 1920. Photo from the Merriam Matthews Photograph Collection/UCLA

“The papers varied in quality (excellent to fluff) and in length (four to eight pages) but most followed a similar structure, covering local doings and Race news from around the country,¨ writes historian Douglas Flamming in his book Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. “Newsworthy items included anything that affected African Americans: black accomplishments, civil rights campaigns, racist incidents, lynchings, political developments….Pullman porters carried Race papers to every little depot in the North, South, and West. Few whites besides politicians knew about these newspapers, but for African Americans they were the vital element connecting the national black network.” 

Much of the news Race papers disseminated was disturbing. Whatever optimism Black Americans might have felt in post-Civil War America was increasingly fragile. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was intended to guarantee Blacks equal treatment in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, public transportation, and theaters. But in 1883, several provisions of the Act were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, whose majority found that Congress did not have the authority to regulate private affairs under the Fourteenth Amendment, which protected a person’s civil rights from being violated by the state, not by individuals. The Court’s twisted logic was that the Act thus addressed social rather than civil rights and was consequently invalid. Legislatures throughout the South quickly enacted laws legalizing segregation in public places. Those were known as “Jim Crow” laws (referring to a famed black-faced minstrel character) and were upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson. That case upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, which would endure more than another half century. 

With legalized segregation came increased violence, particularly lynchings, in which a white mob would hang and sometimes burn alive a person of color. “White southerners lynched African Americans to show who was really in control, to show that Blacks had no rights that whites were obligated to respect,” writes Flamming. “By the mid 1890s, many Afro-southerners had decided a new Exodus was needed.” 

Race papers were part of a new Underground Railroad. News of lynchings traveled across the country via Race papers, but so did something else —  accounts of places where Black people might find better living conditions. The Black exodus to the American West was not as large in numbers as the later Great Migration to the industrial north, and it was less focused on job opportunities. The move West was primarily about freedom. 

As Flamming writes, in the West, and only the West, African American soldiers manned U.S. forts, “armed Black men protecting the interests of the nation,” and dozens of all-Black towns had sprung up across this frontier. The ideal and promise of the West as a bastion of true American freedom was a part of mainstream culture but spoke especially powerfully to African Americans. 

“The West was the freest part of free America —  pure democracy,” writes Flamming. “Naturally, the ideal was largely bunk, but it was widely embraced, and it shaped the behavior and expectations of millions. The Western Ideal inspired many African American dreamers because it promised equal opportunity they’d never found in the East —  whether the North or the South.”  

Flamming, in an interview, said that the news emanating from LA was that of a place one correspondent at the time described as “a city called heaven,” where the color of your skin did not determine your standing in life. 

“Black Los Angeles, or at least its leaders and its boosters, embraced the notion of the West as a land of opportunity,” Flamming said. “Although we don’t think of LA much as the West now, it certainly was a Western city then. People talked about it as such, people praised it as such, with the idea that the West was that last best chance, an open place for opportunity.” 

The Bruces arrived with their son Harvey in Los Angeles sometime between 1904 and 1907. Charles at the time was working for the Union Pacific railroad company. He’d had the opportunity not only to read many Race papers but to actually visit cities across the West, and together he and Willa decided that LA was the best place to live out their American dream. 

New Mexico, which had briefly been occupied by Confederate troops in the Civil War, was more impacted by the threats arising in the Jim Crow South. Lynchings were widespread in neighboring Texas and increasingly occurring in New Mexico. Shepard, who is the Bruce family historian, said that Charles and Willa nonetheless appeared to be flourishing in Albuquerque. 

“I just think the financial opportunities and the social opportunities that California afforded African Americans was the draw, more so than anything else, because they were doing fairly well in Albuquerque, from what I understand, as business owners,” Shepard said. “I think they had a restaurant. We haven’t been able to verify that yet. But they obviously had money because they were able to come to California.” 

This was something that likewise differentiated the Black migration to LA: those who arrived tended to be highly motivated, and to have a little money, because it wasn’t easy, or cheap, to get there. As the prominent Black LA businessmen George Beavers Jr. later said, “We were getting the best of the lot, because it took a certain amount of income and vision to be able to do that, to be able to move so far West and start over again.” Flamming describes these new Angelenos as largely “Black middle class” but emphasizes this designation has more to do with aspirations than material wealth, especially in relation to the much wealthier white middle class. 

“They believed in the sanctity of home, family, and church; placed a premium on self-discipline and education; and had a penchant for thrift, savings, and acquiring real estate,” Flamming writes. “They were strivers and joiners. Economic racism blunted their financial ambitions, but they had faith in the promise of upward mobility for themselves and their children. They were also the civil rights leaders of their era.” 

“They were not soft-spoken in their demands for equal rights or their denunciation of racism, and they were anything but escapists.” 

Charles Bruce, as a chef for the Union Pacific, occupied one of the better jobs a Black man could aspire to at that time, “the cream of the crop” as a Black railroad union leader (in Bound for Freedom) describe the positions on the lavish Pullman cars that housed dining and sleeping quarters. 

The Bruces first lived east of downtown Los Angeles, where they would have encountered a burgeoning African American community. LA was growing rapidly. Between 1900 and 1910 the city’s population increased from 100,000 to over 300,000; Black LA grew from 2,000 people to 7,600 in the same timespan. According to census data, home ownership among African Americans in LA in 1910 was 36 percent, the highest in the nation; no city outside the West exceeded 15 percent. 

Willa and Charles Bruce, founders of Bruce’s Resort in 1912. Photo courtesy the Bruce family

Turn of the century Black LA was a vibrant community. Several Race papers existed, including the New Age, the Liberator, and the California Eagle. Several Black churches had been established. The community was still small enough to be tight-knit, and this social cohesion was increased by a town hall known as “The Forum,” which was held every Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., late enough so everyone could get home from church and have dinner before attending. The Forum took place at the Odd Fellows Hall on 8th Street and, according to Flamming, was an often long-winded and always lively congregation, “ a meeting for the city’s Black community, an open space for debate, indignation, and organization and an important venue for Black activism.” 

But with the larger growth of LA came something else — the increasing presence of white migrants from the South, who brought with them not only many of the prejudices and practices of the Jim Crow South but also the Ku Klux Klan. 

Historian Daniel Cady from Fresno State, whose work includes a paper called “A Battle Transplanted: Southern California’s White Churches, Black Press, and the 1920s Ku Klux Klan,” said that these Southerners had an outsized impact upon their arrival to the LA area. 

“When people move in mass migrations, they have this deep anxiety oftentimes about leaving home and reestablishing themselves,” Cady said. “White Southerners were very clear about how they saw race, much more so than other migrants, and they were also the most vocal ones. So if there is some kind of racial etiquette that is breached, your Midwestern guy might not respond, but the guy from Mississippi is definitely offended, and they become very influential, just by being vocal.” 

“Black newspapers called it ‘the Southern virus.’ This is a virus all white people can catch. It’s like the pandemic.” 

And so while early Black settlers in LA were able to live almost anywhere, increasingly, as the young century wore on, Blacks faced racial covenants that restricted home ownership in many areas. What would become the historical center for Black LA, Central Avenue, was formed in part because Black ownership had become nearly impossible anywhere west of Main Street, or the so-called Westside.

Willa Bruce, however, decided to go even further West. Only one beach existed in LA County that was dedicated to Black people, the Inkwell (named as a racially derogatory description) in Santa Monica. And so on February 15, 1912, when Willa Bruce signed the papers and paid $1,250 to real estate agent Henry Willard for Lot 8 on Block 5 of the Peck’s Manhattan Beach Tract overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it was an act of both historical import and great news interest. The LA Times, the LA Herald, and several of the Race papers announced the purchase, which the Times noted was “a high price for nearby lots.” 

Flamming said that Willa’s purchase of the land held significance within the nascent civil rights movement. A beachfront resort owned by Black people catering to the Black community was something unprecedented. 

“Bruce’s Beach was going to be a new and big thing,” he said. “Unlike the Inkwell, which was segregated for them by the powers that be, Bruce’s Beach was going to be opened by and available to them. So Bruce’s Beach was important as a kind of economic activism.” 

Within the African American community nationwide, the question of whether or not to accept segregation had been urgently debated since Jim Crow laws and their influence began spreading. In the 1890s, the prevailing argument was represented by the Atlanta Compromise brokered between Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Southern white leaders, an agreement in which Southern Blacks would submit to white political rule and surrender demands for equality, integration, and justice, but be guaranteed basic education and due process. Washington’s aim was simply to calm racial hostilities, and especially lynchings, while hopefully building a better economic foundation for themselves that would result in equality in a more distant future. But in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois published his attack on this compromise, The Souls of Black Folk, which called for immediate equality and integration and gave rise to the modern civil rights movement —  including the founding, in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which 18 years later would earn one of its early victories because of Bruce’s Beach, forcing the legal integration of two miles of beachfront.  

Meda Bruce, Harvey Bruce, and Willie Bruce at Bruce’s Lodge in 1912. Courtesy of the California African American Museum

Anthony Bruce said that until recently, his family’s recollections of Bruce’s Beach have not focused much on the positive part of the story due to the tragedy of how it ended. 

“Because of the way it happened, how we were removed from the land and how they treated my ancestors, we don’t have a lot of good stories about that time,” he said. 

But as the story of Bruce’s Beach begins a new life, somehow Willa and Charles seem to have finally assumed their rightful place as part of a more proud history. Charles is remembered by the family as a hard working man with a gift for social connections. 

“He was a person who could talk to you and tell you a little bit about something that is going on and areas you might want to go check out,” Anthony Bruce said. “You might end up living in that place. He was influential.”  

Willa, on the other hand, was a force of nature, a woman to be reckoned with. 

“I think she held herself with a lot of dignity,” Anthony Bruce said. “She was very well-spoken, knew her way around, and came to opportunities knowing when to strike out and achieve those goals. As soon as she learned there was land there, she said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do this. Let’s purchase this and let’s see what we can do with it. Let us make something of this for our lives.’ That is what it boiled down to, from what I know of my ancestors. She was an opportunist, and she had an opportunity. She had a dream, and she dreamed big. Obviously, for an African American woman at that time to go up to a white businessman was probably unheard of. But she was bold enough to do it. She was a very strong woman. She wasn’t one to shy away or back down from anyone or anything.” 

Part II: What happened at Bruce’s Beach. ER

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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