The survival of Bruce’s Beach: the memory of a Black resort that refused to fade

How the memory of a Black resort refused to fade

by Mark McDermott 

fourth in a series

Bruce’s Beach left behind a lot of memories. For nearly 15 years beginning in 1912, the resort represented an almost magical destination for Black residents of Southern California, an oceanfront haven where one could experience, if briefly, a different sort of world. A place of peace and celebration for African Americans. 

Many thousands came. The Bruce’s hosted family gatherings, railroad worker celebrations, coming of age and going away parties. People often arrived dressed to the nines; Bruce’s Lodge was a place to be seen, in part, but more generally the African American community of the 1910s and 20s was rich with style. Whether on the beach or in the dance hall, elegance was a value among the patrons of Bruce’s Beach. 

The California Eagle, the “race paper” which closely covered the comings and goings at Bruce’s Beach, reported on a moonlight truck ride, “one of the most delightful events of the season,” that took place one Saturday night. It was a going away party for Miss Retta Trout, who was leaving for New York, and featured a ride to the beach for a party of 36 young people. 

The announcement of Bruce’s Beach closing in the California Eagle, May 3, 1927. From the Final History Report by the History Advisory Committee

“The moonlight night was grand for the trip,” the Eagle reported. “When the party arrived, Mrs. Bruce had the dance hall nicely arranged and the tables beautifully decorated. A delicious dinner was served. The evening was spent in dancing and whist. Music was provided by Miss M. Harris and Orchestra.” 

The dance hall on the second floor of Bruce’s Lodge frequently featured orchestras. The Jazz Age was just dawning in America, and some of its early luminaries graced the stage on the Manhattan Beach oceanfront. One frequent performer was Professor Thomas Le Blanc, who’d been part of the very birth of jazz in his native New Orleans. Le Blanc played some of his hometown’s early, influential brass bands and taught King Oliver trumpet. King Oliver then taught a young Louis Armstrong the instrument. 

Several historical figures who would become among the most prominent civil rights defenders of the 20th Century were also visitors to Bruce’s Beach, including H. Claude Hudson, a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and among the most revered Black leaders in Los Angeles history;  E. Burton Ceruti, the co-founder of NAACP’s LA chapter who in 1918 scored an important legal victory forcing the desegregation of LA County’s nursing training program; Hugh Macbeth, a Harvard Law graduate who led desegregation efforts in LA and, perhaps most famously, successfully defended Japanese Americans interned during WWII in a landmark Supreme Court case; and Willis O. Tyler, another Harvard Law graduate who’d established a law firm with Macbeth in 1912 and was particularly famed for his oratory skills. 

Tyler, who represented the Bruces in the condemnation proceedings launched by the City of Manhattan Beach in 1924, remarked that it was the very success of Bruce’s Beach which put it in the crosshairs of city leaders. According to Douglas Flamming’s Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, Tyler described an 800 person party intended to impress a visiting Black leader as “the beginning of the end of Bruce’s Beach” because it “struck such alarm in the minds of the leaders of Manhattan Beach.” 

Willis O. Tyler, the attorney who represented Willa and Charles Bruce in their condemnation proceeding against the City of Manhattan Beach. Fair use image

Willa Bruce had from the outset vowed to fight for her land. But by 1925 she had come to realize this was not a fight she could win. A few years earlier, proposed Black resorts had been defeated, after initially winning approval, at Ocean Park in Santa Monica and Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo due to an increasingly furious wave of white “protective league” opposition. Then, in early 1926, the most ambitious Black resort of all, the Pacific Beach Club, which was near completion in Huntington Beach and intended to be “the grandest escape of all” for Black Californians, complete with Eygptial Revival architecture, was destroyed by arson. The project had been headed by Ceruti and was clearly intended not only as a resort but as an act of economic activism, a statement that Black people would not only have a place at the beach, but build the “Queen of the Pacific.” It had all gone up in flames. Though no arrests were ever made, the Ku Klux Klan’s very active presence in Southern California at the time caused many to believe that they had started the fire. 

“The reason I would say… Klan is because the Klan’s weapon is fire,” historial Daniel Cady told the Orange County Register. “It’s part of their ritual, part of their ceremony.” 

Hugh Macbeth, an attorney that represented families forced out of Bruce’s Beach who later successfully defended Japanese Americans whose lands were taken during WWII. Fair use image

That flame, both literally and figuratively, was coming for Manhattan Beach, and Willa and Charles Bruce knew it. At the very same time the Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees moved to condemn Bruce’s Beach and force out the Bruce’s and the other four Black families living on the tract, they also passed ordinances prohibiting the building of bath houses east of the Pacific Electric right-of-way, gave themselves sole regulatory purview over the operation of bath houses, social clubs, theatres, dance halls, pool halls and other places of public amusement, and banned dressing or undressing in cars, tents, or temporary structures. In short, in one fell swoop, the Board moved not only to eliminate Bruce’s Beach, but also ensure that nothing like it rose from its ashes. 

Robert Brigham, whose 1956 thesis on land ownership by African Americans in Manhattan Beach is based on interviews with city leaders and other witnesses to the events at Bruce’s Beach and thus provides the best contemporaneous account of what occurred, wrote that the message the Board was delivering to the Bruces was clear. 

“They had attracted hundreds and sometimes thousands of other Negroes who used the Bruce establishment as a ‘base of operations’ while they enjoyed a few hours on the beach,” Brigham wrote. “This factor undoubtedly made the Bruces the least desirable of the Negro families in Manhattan.” 

The ordinances that accompanied the condemnation, Brigham wrote, “made the relocation of Bruce’s Lodge little short of impossible. Mr. and Mrs. Bruce and their attorney, Willis O. Tyler, could well have thought twice before conceding victory to Manhattan Beach under these circumstances. They may have reasoned, however, that even a victory in the courts would be an ultimate defeat, a defeat possibly accompanied by violence.” 

Willis had earlier argued that condemning the land for use as a park made little sense when so much nearby land contained little to no development and would cost the city much less to obtain through eminent domain. Further, he noted, the city already had property closer to town center —  what could become Live Oak Park —  donated by George Peck in 1921 specifically for use as a park. Willis’ contention that Bruce’s Beach was not needed for a park would prove correct, after the land sat empty for three decades. 

Nevertheless, the Bruces signaled that the fight was largely over by not demanding a jury trial and accepting court-appointed referees to determine the value of the land. What could have been a more drawn out fight was thus expedited. 

James Slaughter, who with his wife Lula would open up a lodging house adjacent to Bruce’s Beach in 1927, with friends John and Margaret Scott. Photo from the Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection at the UCLA Library

On May 16, 1927, the Bruces notified the City that they were leaving. According to documents discovered by Manhattan Beach’s History Advisory Committee in its recent final report to City Council, the Bruce’s informed the City that they were prepared to leave behind all property “and all improvements thereon and consent that you forthwith wreck, tear down and remove the building on said lots.” 

As was their way, however, the Bruce’s also left with a note of grace. A notice in the California Eagle announced a “Bruce’s Beach Closing Out Party” on May 30. It advertised refreshments, Lauretta Baker’s Orchestra, “The Ocean, fun, fun, fun…Everybody Will Be There.” 

And so the Bruces left the beach. But the fire was yet to come. 

 

The burning cross

Two developments occurred shortly after the Bruce’s departure that would inflame what would come to be known as Manhattan Beach’s race war. 

On May 19, 1927, the Board of Trustees agreed to the first of a series of beachfront leases to businessman Oscar C. Bessonette  that would, in the words of the History Advisory Committee’s Final Report,  “allow Bessonette to treat the beach as private property and thus arrest unwanted visitors.” The unusual lease agreements included most of the beach from 16th to 19th Street and was soon extended to include 25th Street through 27th Street. The entire beach in front of what had been Bruce’s Beach had been privatized. And as the Historyo Advisory Committee noted, a misperception later existed that Bessonotte paid the City a dollar for the lease, due to later cross-examination by Macbeth in which he asked the businessman, “Did you ever pay one dollar?”, a question Bessonette never answered due to the objection of his lawyer. 

“There is no indication in the Minutes of the City of Manhattan Beach Board of Trustees that Bessonette was charged anything,” the History Advisory Committee notes. 

Brigham said this unusual arrangment made sense in the larger context of what the City was doing, which was attempting to end the “Negro invasion” of Manhattan Beach. 

“Everything points to the fact that this was another subterfuge on the part of the City whereby an attempt was made to pervert a legal process to the end that the Negroes would leave Manhattan Beach,” Brigham said. “First of all, located as it was at a spot most convenient to the Negroes, it was natural that this is where they had been bathing and would continue to bathe. Secondly, Mr. Bessonette apparently had no personal reason for wanting to lease a portion of the beach. But this he did and as lessee he posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs.¨

Less than two weeks later, a new Black owned and operated lodging house opened in Manhattan Beach. James and Lula Slaughter purchased the land in 1926, when the Bruce’s Beach condemnation proceedings were already underway, and announced its opening on May 30, 1927 —  the same day Bruce’s Beach was closing. The Slaughters, who had five children and became Manhattan Beach residents, appeared undaunted by what had happened to the Bruces and the other four families. Their location was at 120 26th Street, just a block away from the condemned land. An advertisement in the California Eagle invited Black Los Angeles. “Come, bring your family and spend the day at Manhattan Beach, formerly Bruce’s Beach,” the notice read. 

Thus the battle lines were drawn. Black people were still determined to come to the beach. The City of Manhattan Beach was determined to prevent them from doing so. 

The trouble began immediately. On Memorial Day, May 30, the very day of the Slaughter lodging house´s Grand Opening, Manhattan Beach police took the names and addresses of 25 African Americans who’d come to the beach below the former Bruce’s Lodge. 

“Refusing to leave the water or the beach, the African American holiday crowd was told this police action had occurred because the swimmers were trespassing on privately owned beach frontage,” wrote historian Alison Rose Jefferson, in Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era. She noted that the police harassment only bolstered the resolve of civil rights activists to “militantly press” the issue. 

The California Eagle called the police action a  “bulldozing attempt in disguise to coerce and browbeat the Negro into keeping away from those quarters,” and reported that African Americans would continue to demand their civil rights “with both feet.”

Bruce’s Lodge was bulldozed only a few weeks later. “Housewreckers Clear Park Site of Old Buildings” the Manhattan Beach News reported on June 27. That same week, on June 26, police once again took action against Black beachgoers. According to the California Eagle, police ran 40 or 50 people from the beach. One man, Walter Gordon Sr., whose 19-year-old son would go on to become a civil rights lawyer famed for fighting segregation practices, refused to leave. Threatened with arrest, Gordon told the police “some fine points of the law,” according to the California Eagle, and “after listening with some emotion, [they] beat a hasty retreat.” 

On July 4, a 19-year-old UCLA student named Elizabeth Catley further pressed the issue. Catley was visiting the Slaughter family and was at the beach with two of the Slaughter daughters, Willine and Estella. Only Catley, however, dared to swim. Reportedly, it was a crowded day at the beach, as Catley swam alongside white, Japanese, and Mexican people in the ocean. The police were quickly upon her. According to the Eagle’s account, Catley was “hauled…jerked around…and pushed into an automobile” by Manhattan Beach police. 

“She was held in jail for five hours and not given the opportunity to change from her wet bathing suit to dry clothes,” Brigham wrote. “Finally the father of the Slaughter girls posted $10 bail and obtained her release.” 

Another swimmer, Roy Hilbert, was also arrested, apparently for swimming in the same place he’d made a habit of swimming every Sunday for years, in the waters below Bruce’s Beach. He likewise was released on $10 bail. Catley told the Eagle that even Redondo Beach chief of police John Henry —  whose name was found in Ku Klux Klan membership rolls following the Inglewood Raid of 1922 —  seemed taken aback when MBPD officers brought her to the Redondo jail (Manhattan had no jail at the time). 

“I dared to do what I thought was my right [and] was thrown in jail,” Catley said. “The real importance of the affair is just starting to dawn on me.” 

NAACP leader H. Claude Hudson decided to further press the issue. He organized a small group of people “who didn’t mind going to jail,” he later wrote, and arrived in Manhattan Beach on July 17, prepared to engage in the chapter’s first act of civil disobedience. Among those whom he recruited to take part in what they would call the “swim in” —  an early echo of the “sit in” protests that would occur in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s —  was Sadie Chandler Cole, one of the most respected figures in the Black Los Angeles community. Cole was the daughter of a conductor of the Underground Railroad who became a social worker, music teacher, and stalwart activist. 

“Cole was both singularly refined and militant,” wrote historian Douglas Flamming in Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. “A graduate of Fisk University, with a son who fought in the World War, a daughter who performed in opera in Italy, and a husband — Thomas Cole — who was a deputy in the LA Sheriff’s Department, Sadie Cole would not abide racial restrictions. Once, in the 1920s, when she was refused service in a soda shop, she began throwing cups and plates and trashing the place. The owner changed policies and served Blacks after that.” 

Cole’s sway was such, after the aforementioned “Blacks Not Served Here” incident, that she was able to persuade the mayor of Los Angeles at the time to have all such signs removed, citywide. 

“As Sadie Chandler-Cole was a respected, determined and committed activist in defense of racial justice, having her participate in the beach protest was an important statement,” wrote Jefferson. 

The group arrived at the beach in the late afternoon. They were immediately approached by police. According to Hudson’s subsequent court testimony, he asked the officers what the trouble was. 

“They answered that the beach was private property, and the colored people should follow the line of least resistance,” Hudson testified, adding that he told the officer that “Negroes had not done this during the war, but rather risked their lives for their country.” 

Police did not arrest Cole. But Hudson and three others were arrested and charged with resisting arrest, charges that would later be changed to disturbing the peace. They were released on $10 bail and required to return for a trial at Manhattan Beach City Hall on August 2. The arresting officer, Alexander Haddock, told City Attorney Frank Perry he was following orders from Bessonette to keep colored people off the beach. Under questioning from Hugh Macbeth, Bessonette acknowledged as much. 

Elizabeth Catley, the 19-year-old UCLA student who was arrested for swimming at Bruce’s Beach. Fair use image

Macbeth: Did you have a sign posted?

Bessonette: Yes, “No Trespassing”.

Macbeth: Did this sign mean no trespassing by Colored people?

Bessonette: It meant no trespassing by undesirables.

Macbeth: On July 17, when these four defendants seated here were arrested and lodged in jail were there any other people sitting in the same spot?

Bessonette: Yes.

Macbeth: Were they arrested?

Bessonette: No.

Macbeth: Then your sign was posted for colored peoples only?

Bessonette: For undesirables.

Macbeth: You consider colored people undesirables?

Bessonette: Yes.

Macbeth used the legal proceedings to question the City’s lease with Bessonette, and in a sense, put the City itself on trial. 

“I charge this Trustee Board and other authorities of Manhattan with fraud, and with concocting a scheme under the guise of law by which they discriminate against a certain class of people — Negroes —  in the community, many of whom are property owners at Manhattan,” Macbeth said in his closing statement. 

The Justice of the Peace, Llewellyn Price (who also happened to be Manhattan Beach City Clerk) sided with the City, and offered the four defendants their choice of a $100 or 20 days in jail. Macbeth signaled that NAACP would continue the fight, and on August 12 filed an appeal with the Superior Court of Los Angeles. Finally, the Board of Trustees must have recognized just how untenable the City’s position was, because that same week they revoked Bessonette’s lease and announced the beach would forthwith be free to all the public. The decision was immediately heralded by the Los Angeles Times as “an example in public spirit for the older beach communities in Southern California…it has secured for the recreation and enjoyment of all the people two miles of foreshore, free from private exploitation or the erection of barriers, assuring residents and visitors an ocean playground in keeping with the spirit of American democracy.” 

NAACP had scored one of the most important victories in its early history, one that would reverberate in the decades to come. 

“The Los Angeles Branch of the NAACP won the fight to prevent circumvention of civil rights laws and the exclusion of African Americans from swimming at the oceanfront in Manhattan Beach,” wrote Jefferson. “Racial restrictions attempts at public beaches would fade away in the coming decades. The Black Angeleno community was energized by the Manhattan Beach victory.” 

But an element of the white Manhattan Beach community was also energized. Two months later, during the night of October 18, a group wearing hoods paid a visit to the Slaughter’s house. They covered the gas meter with oil and other accelerants and lit fire to it. According to an account in the California Eagle, the Slaughters doused the fire before it could damage their home. But the following night they woke to find a burning cross across the street. The Eagle said the Slaughters would not leave because they were “not the running kind.” 

The History Advisory Committee, in compiling its Final History Report for Manhattan Beach City Council this year, unearthed a trove of reporting on the events surrounding the appearance of that burning cross in 1927. Though they were unable to obtain all the Grand Jury files due to the pandemic, they discovered that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office conducted an investigation into an “anti-race plot” in Manhattan Beach. Area newspapers, and not only the race papers, covered the machinations of the investigation, which was made public in February 1928 and led by George Contreras, chief of the DA’s detective’s bureau. 

“Nearby Town Now Center of Race War,” read the Feb. 15 headline of Venice Evening Vanguard. “Dynamite, bullets and the secret torch are all alleged to have been employed by residents in order to induce the negroes to travel,” the paper reported. “Certain citizens objected to a colored settlement…It was learned that seven Manhattan Beach citizens have been questioned by operatives in regard to the race trouble. One of these seven, it is said, has been Jack Garvin, Manhattan’s chief of police. The other six are business men of the community.” 

The LA Times reported that a large group of local, white residents conducted a meeting in the middle of the night to discuss the plot. “Secrecy in Terrorism Plan Lifted: Contrereas Goes to Beach City as Negro Baiters Meet in Sand Dunes” read the headline, while the Vanguard described it as a “mystery enclave” behind the plot: “While the forces of the law were moving to end the race strife in that community, a band of 100 men are said to have met in the middle of the night…” The Record, an LA paper, reported that shots had been fired into the Slaughter’s home and a home belonging to Isaac and Pearl Moses on 6th and Peck had been burnt to the ground. “A fiery cross blazed upon a hillside shortly before one of the fires and written warnings were placed upon the houses marked for arson,” the paper reported. 

Nothing came of the investigation. The Times reported on Feb. 27 that the DA’s office said more evidence would be needed before the investigation could be submitted to a Grand Jury. 

In 1929, the condemnation proceedings against the Bruces and the other former residents and property owners at Bruce’s Beach were completed. The condemnation had been unpopular in Manhattan Beach, apparently for fiscal reasons. Members of the Board of Trustees faced an unsuccessful recall attempt led by a group calling itself the Protective Tax League. The panel awarded a total of $66,040 to the 20 different property owners, including $21,000 to the absentee group that had owned the most property, and $14,500 to the Bruces. The History Advisory Committee researched the price and found it roughly in accordance with existing property values at the time, perhaps slightly higher. The Bruces had requested $70,000 for their property and $50,000 in damages, since they clearly would not be able to relocate their business elsewhere in Manhattan Beach. 

Three of the Black families purchased elsewhere in Manhattan Beach, although only one remained long term. The Slaughters likewise departed Manhattan Beach by 1930. 

The Bruces bought a home in Los Angeles as soon as they left Manhattan Beach, but Charles and Willa would not live much longer. Charles died of kidney failure in 1931, and Willa died three years later of atherosclerosis, according to records obtained by the History Advisory Committee, which also found real estate records indicating that the family had purchased some business properties in the early 30s that were foreclosed on a decade later. 

Family historian Duane Yellow Feather Shepard said those last years were difficult ones for Charles and Willa. 

“All I know is they lived in poverty after leaving, working as cooks in local restaurants, and they didn’t get the settlement money until 1932, three years after the judgment,” Shepard said. “Willa lost her mind from the stress of it all, and passed in 1934.” 

Their son, Harvey, wrote a thank you note in the California Eagle after Willa’s passing. “Sleep on, mother dear, there is a reaper whose name is death,” he wrote. “You have won the fight and the battle is over.” 

Back in Manhattan Beach, in 1930, a different sort of victory was declared. The Manhattan Beach News  praised Board trustee John F. Jones for his work confronting the “Negro invasion.” 

“Mr. Jones worked long and earnestly on this problem,” the newspaper reported, “with the result that the negroes finally withdrew their occupancy of the Manhattan Beach property and the city is now free from that menace.”

What had occurred lingered in the memory of another Board member in a less positive way. In a Manhattan Beach News story in 1943, Frank Daugherty, who had been one of the three original developers of Manhattan Beach along with George Peck and John Merrill, ruminated on the city’s history. 

“At one time, we thought that the Negro problem was going to stop our progress,” Daugherty said. “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.”  

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

“Those Negroes were Americans and had as much right to be here as we did,” he said. “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.” 

 

Sadie Chandler Cole. From the California
Eagle, 1919

Living memory 

Historian Alison Rose Jefferson is, by profession, a time traveler. Probably no living person outside the Bruce family has spent more time contemplating the experience of Willa and Charles Bruce. For her master’s thesis and then her book, Jefferson has been thinking about Bruce’s Beach for over 20 years. 

Sometimes when she arrives in Manhattan Beach, Jefferson stands atop the hill above where Bruce’s Lodge once stood, and the buildings and the other developments of the last century just kind of melt away. She gets a glimpse of what Charles or Willa or one of the many people who journeyed down from Los Angeles might have seen and is momentarily stunned by the beauty of it. 

“I think about them, and all the other people who would have been coming down to the beach and enjoying themselves….And oh my goodness, what a beautiful view one has of the ocean, all the way to Malibu and over to Palos Verdes,” Jefferson said. 

Bruce’s Beach had all but faded from history for the better part of a century. Local historian Robert Brigham had a similar experience to Jefferson’s in the 1930s and 1940s, but also significantly different. He recalled walking across the top of that very hill and looking at entirely empty land, unpopulated by both people and memory. 

“I have been by this empty slope hundreds of times,” Brigham wrote.  “Always, there has been a curiosity, a wondering why this land, seemingly no different from that around it, should be void of houses. My casual questions were met with a shrug of the shoulders, or a furrowed brow, or sometimes a sly smile.” 

Brigham diligently filled in those shrugs and sly smiles with answers, and thus began the process of remembering. The thrust of Jefferson’s work is that this collective remembering matters. 

“All of African American experience, no matter where you were in the country, was whitewashed,” she said. “So we are playing catch up all over the nation in terms of developing these voices and a public memory of these experiences, because of the fact that they had been excluded from the American narrative.” 

The Bruce family never forgot. They inherited a legacy of anger and regret, one that impacts the family to this day. They regard Bruce’s Beach as holy land. When the park, which was finally constructed in the 1950s, was renamed Bruce’s Beach in 2007, the restoration of that memory genuinely helped to begin the healing. 

“I was there for the ceremony with one of my daughters and two of my grandchildren,” said Patricia Bruce Carter, a distant relative of Charles and Willa. “That was a beautiful day. It was almost like God came down and sat on the grass with us. A day to remember.”

Willa and Charles’ grandson, Bernard Bruce, was also there. He had spent a half century trying to bring attention to what had occurred at Bruce’s Beach. And while he celebrated the park’s renaming, it was more bitter than sweet. “These people, they worked on the railroad, they saved their money, they put up a resort and they lost everything,” Bruce told the LA Times. “How would you feel if your family owned the Waldorf and they took it away from you?”

Bernard’s anger was legendary within the family, and led to his son moving across the country, to Florida. His grandson, Anthony, one of four remaining direct descendants of Charles and Willa, recently returned to Bruce’s Beach to appear on “60 Minutes.” He felt something more than its beauty. He felt a spiritual connection with his ancestors. 

The lessons Anthony takes from Willa and Charles are about love, perseverance, and the value of hard work. A religious man —  he has called into City Council meetings to offer Manhattan Beach his love and forgiveness —  Anthony finds something in a passage from Ecclesiastes that he relates to his forebears: “Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.” 

“I believe this is something they might have believed in as well,” he said. 

“They were doing this because they wanted to please God. They didn’t go out there thinking we want to do this because we want our name in newspapers. They went out there because they had an amazing dream. And it was taken from them, and they were faced with violent persecution. All they had to endure would make anyone run in fear, but they didn’t live in fear, and they didn’t cower away from that challenge.” 

Nor did they respond with hate. Anthony thinks about how, when George Peck had a rope strung in front of Bruce’s Lodge to prevent beach access the week they opened for business, Willa and Charles and their patrons reacted with peaceful determination, but not violence. They simply walked the half mile to the ocean. They were accustomed to hardship, and likewise accustomed to overcoming it. 

“I think they believed in God in the sense that you can love your neighbor,” he said. “They did not have hate in their hearts….Willa and Charles could have lashed out. They had so many opportunities. The best response was to be humble about your circumstances and try to deal with it as best you can.” 

Willa Bruce’s vow in 1912, speaking to the Los Angeles Times after Peck ordered the beach roped off, a message that the Bruces and their kind were not welcome —  appeared for a century to have fallen short due to the impossible obstacles she faced. 

“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.”

Los Angeles County and the State of California are on the cusp of making those words ring true once again. There are many reasons this may happen, including the historians who kept the memory of Bruce’s Beach alive; Black Lives Matter; and its local counterpart, Justice for Bruce’s Beach; Supervisor Janice Hahn; and the memory of her father, Kenneth, who recognized the rightness Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision, and met with him at a time no other elected official in LA County would risk doing so. But in the end, if it happens, Bruce’s Beach will be restored to the family because the memory of Willa Bruce and the stand she took refused to fade. And even if it does not happen, if some legal obstacle again emerges, Willa and Charles Bruce will have finally assumed their rightful place as part of a more proud history than the one from which they emerged. ER 

 

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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