What happened at Bruce’s Beach
Charles and Willa Bruce made a stand that continues to reverberate a century later
by Mark McDermott
Second of three parts
On June 17, 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce opened Bruce’s Beach resort. It was a modest operation located on a sparsely populated stretch of beach in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. Later that year, the area would officially become Manhattan Beach, but even within the fledgling city of 600, Bruce’s Beach was an outpost. It sat below the crest of a dune, near developer George Peck’s precarious wooden pier and pavilion, neither of which would survive the decade.
Willa Bruce had come an unfathomable distance from her upbringing in Missouri in the 1860s. Missouri had been a slave state and, during the Civil War years of Bruce’s early childhood, a fiercely violent border state populated by both Confederate and Union army supporters. Willa’s mother had been a slave.
Willa and Charles, who met and married in New Mexico, arrived at the California coast pursuing a dream. Like so many other Black Americans, they had come West in search of a truer freedom than the rest of Jim Crow America allowed. But also like so many others, they were beginning to find that Jim Crow America had followed them West.
Willa had purchased the 32-foot by 100-foot lot in February, 1912, from Los Angeles real estate broker Henry Willard, who was white. What was to become Manhattan Beach at the time consisted largely of shacks. Unlike other communities forming nearby, Manhattan Beach had little in the way of public works. There were few paved roads and only two central wells; residents obtained water by bucket. Mainly, there was sand, lots and lots of constantly shifting sand.
“Sand was a symbol and a problem for early Manhattan Beach residents,” writes historian Alison Rose Jefferson. “As the wind would spread the sand in drifts, dunes shifted, boardwalks and streets were inundated, and homes were destabilized.”
Local historian Jan Dennis said nearby El Segundo was a more integral part of Los Angeles while Redondo Beach had a port, but essentially nothing was going on at that time in Manhattan Beach.
“No one came to Manhattan Beach,” Dennis said. “They couldn’t get into Manhattan Beach. They used to come up along the hard pack sand when the tide went out because there were no roads to get into here. You had people fishing and what have you, living on the beach. It was very laid back.”
What Manhattan Beach had going for it was its oceanic beauty and the Pacific Electric Railway Company’s “Balloon Route.” The Pacific Electrics “Red Car” trolleys ran along the shore and were advertised as “the shortest and quickest lines between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean,” taking less than an hour from downtown LA.
The Bruce property, part of Peck’s Manhattan Beach Tract, was only steps from the Pacific Electric line. By June, Willa Bruce had installed what the Los Angeles Times described as a “small portable cottage with a stand in front where soda pop and lunches are sold,” as well as two tents with showers. She had 50 bathing suits for rent and had advertised the opening of “Bruce Beach Front” as a “Grand Affair” in one of the Black-owned Los Angeles Race papers, the Liberator.
But in only its second Sunday in operation, Bruce’s Lodge encountered what would be the first of many troubles from its neighbors. “Colored People’s Resort Meets Opposition” read the headline of the next day’s LA Times, which reported that “the small summer resort for negroes at North Manhattan has created great agitation among the white property owners of adjoining lands.”
Peck appeared to be foremost among the agitated. Like Charles Bruce, who worked as a dining car chef on the Union Pacific rail line between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, Peck was a railroad man. He’d begun his career as a railroad conductor and was credited with driving the first Southern Pacific train into San Pedro, where he would stay and start a new career in real estate (including building his own mansion on San Pedro’s row of luxurious houses, known as the Gold Coast) and banking (he established San Pedro’s first bank in 1890). He bought North Manhattan from another developer, John Merrill, in 1902, and whatever vision he had for what it would become apparently did not include Bruce’s Beach.
“Yesterday when a good sized crowd of pleasure seekers had gathered and donned their bathing suits to disport in the ocean, they were confronted by two deputy constables who warned them against crossing the strip of land in front of Mrs. Bruce’s property to reach to the ocean,” the LA Times reported. “From a distance of over a half mile from Peck’s Pier to 24th Street, a strip of ocean frontage is owned by George H. Peck, who also owns several hundred acres of land in the Manhattan addition where Mrs. Bruce’s property is located. This strip has been staked off and ‘no trespassing’ signs put up and consequently the bathers yesterday could not get to the beach without walking beyond Peck’s strip of ocean frontage.”
Neither Willa Bruce nor her patrons, however, were daunted by this show of power. If Peck or the constables thought a half mile walk was going to keep a people who by this point had already been fighting for basic freedoms for 300 years from getting to the ocean, they were mistaken.
“This small inconvenience, however, did not deter the ocean bathers, on pleasure bent, from walking the half mile around Peck’s land and spending the day swimming and jumping the breakers,” the Times reported. “All along the beach in front of the prohibited strip which was patrolled by the constables, the light-hearted ‘cullud people’ frollicked in the breakers or lay in the warm sand enjoying the sea breezes.”
Jefferson, whose book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era explores the attempts not only of the Bruces but other African Americans in the LA area early last century to secure the simple freedoms of recreation, writes that being able to control how one spends one’s free time is a value easily overlooked by cultures who have rarely faced restrictions.
“Historically, free time has been one of the most treasured parts of life,” Jefferson writes. “This has been especially true for African Americans, who have been determined to overcome the legacy of enslavement and its aftermath in order to enjoy the consumption of leisure and other cultural experiences. The ability to choose how and where we spend our free time in many ways lays at the heart of what we understand ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ to mean.”
The Black Los Angeles community was a cohesive and very proud community, well aware of its history. One of Willa Bruce’s acquaintances, Charlotta Bass, the publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, had chafed for years about the “whitewashing” of California’s own history. The original settlers of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels), founded as part of New Spain in 1781, were almost all of mixed African descent, and the final governor of Mexican California, Pio Pico, had been Afro-Mexican. This history, and the promise of the greater freedoms inherent in the very notion of the American West, had been part of the draw for African Americans who’d left the South and arrived in Los Angeles during the first decade of the 20th century.
“The decade marked the arrival of three thousand African American families whose shared experiences, intermarriages, real estate investments, and support for Negro churches would provide a small but sturdy foundation for community building,” writes Douglas Flamming in his book, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America.
So the Bruces and the people who came to their resort on that day in June were part not only of a strong community, but one with aspirations to further enforce their freedom. They were also well aware that the racist practices of the Jim Crow South were increasingly spreading to Southern California. As Jefferson noted, in an interview, attempts to purchase beachfront land had been stymied elsewhere on the coast, specifically in Santa Monica, where a more robust African American community was already established near the beach, but was being prevented from establishing itself on the beach.
“Bruce’s Beach was very important because of the fact that African Americans had been trying to buy property at the beach when the Bruces bought their property and they were running up against white resistance,” Jefferson said in an interview. “There’s newspaper accounts that are talking about African Americans during that time period trying to buy property in Santa Monica on the oceanfront, and they weren’t able to. They were able to buy property in Santa Monica, but it was inland property.”
Lines were being drawn in the sand over the issue, and it wasn’t entirely white against Black. As Flamming notes in Bound for Freedom, the owner of the LA Times, General Harrison Hudson Gray Otis, was an “old-school Reconstruction” Lincoln Republican who aggressively attacked white supremacy. As a Times editorial asked, “Is it not about time that this absurd, illogical, unreasonable and unjust discrimination against a man because he happens to have a dark skin should be dropped?”
Willa Bruce, at any rate, would not be moved. The events of June 26 were only the beginning of her fight, something she seemed keenly aware of as she spoke to the Times. She only left a few sentences etched in the historical record, but she fashioned them with might, so they might last:
“Mrs. Bruce, a stout negress whose home is at 1024 Sante Fe avenue, says most emphatically that she is there to stay, and that she will continue to rent bathing suits to people of her race,” the Times reported. “The situation, as described by Mrs. Bruce, has a pathetic side, for she avers that negroes cannot have bathing privileges at any of the bathhouses along the coast, and all they desire is a little resort of their own to which they might go to enjoy the ocean.”
“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.”
She and her associates feel that it is unjust that they should not be allowed to have “a little breathing space” by the seaside where they might have a holiday.
Property owners of the Caucasion race who have property surrounding the new resort deplore the state of affairs, but will try to find a remedy, if the negroes try to stay.”
Chief Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, a relative of the Bruce family who serves as both its historian and spokesperson, said he believes that Willa and Charles decided to buy land in Manhattan Beach and remain there in the face of opposition in order not only to better the lot of their family but also of their people.
“It was an act of freedom. It was an act of defiance,” Shepard said. “They decided that they were going to make a stand, and take a stab at surviving on their own in America in a place where they knew that the odds were totally against them.”
Bruce’s Lodge quickly became a hub of the Los Angeles African American community. News of happenings at the resort regularly appeared in the Race papers, such as the California Eagle, and occasionally in larger papers, such as the Times.
Shepard believes that Willa and Charlotta Bass, of the Eagle, may have formed a particularly strong bond. Bass was a singularly powerful figure in the Black LA community. She’d only arrived in LA in 1910, not long after the Bruces, and when the founder and publisher of the Eagle, John J. Neimore, died in 1912, he made a deathbed request that Bass keep the paper alive. The Eagle was the oldest Black newspaper in LA, founded in 1879, and hewed to its founder´s vision to serve as a new Underground Railroad that could help guide Blacks from bondage to freedom. Charlotta, after taking over, hired a reporter named Big Joe Bass, who she would marry in 1914. Both served as editors for the Eagle. Big Joe had run Race papers in Kansas and Montana and had been lured by the promise of greater freedoms in California. According to Bound for Freedom, Big Joe was a staunch admirer of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose argument that Blacks cease accommodating white attempts to segregate the races and directly confront racial prejudice led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
The early years of Bruce’s Lodge were heady times for the African American community in Los Angeles. Du Bois visited LA in 1913 and fell in love. He was also greeted with parades, like a conquering hero. What he wrote at the time captured some of the spirit in the air.
“The air was scented with orange blossoms and the beautiful homes lay low crouching on the earth as though they loved its scents and flowers,” Du Bois wrote. “Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group — with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and a buoyant spirit.”
Though it isn’t documented that Du Bois visited Bruce’s Beach, a passage of his describing the LA “environs” quoted in Alison Rose Jefferson’s work corresponds with the joy experienced by Black beachgoers as described by the LA Times.
“To sing the sun of a golden morning and dip, soar, and roll…out….to the sight and sound of the sea — this is Glory and Triumph and Life,” Du Bois wrote.
NAACP founded an LA Chapter in 1914. Down at the beach, the Bruce’s business was thriving, and they were making plans to expand to a two story frame building with a red tile roof. The recently compiled history report by the Bruce’s History Advisory Committee shares an account from the December 25 Manhattan Beach News. “The [N]egro population of Manhattan Beach… have had plans drawn for one of the finest apartment houses in this section of the beach,” the paper reported, noting the new building would include 30 dressing rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen, and a dance floor upstairs.
Its completion was announced in the Eagle in 1916. “Mrs. Bruce has built a new, up-to-date Bath at the famous resort known as Bruce’s Beach, or formerly Peck’s Pavillion,” the Eagle reported. “Surf bathing, those good bounteous fried fish meals, and many other attractions. A modern line with every safety device will be installed. Come and enjoy the day, week-end or longer at this home-like outing place.”
Shepard said that Charlotta Bass and the Eagle likely hosted events at Bruce’s Beach.
“She was close friends with the Bruces,” he said. “Those communities there were very close knit. So a lot of the events that she had happened at Bruce’s resort. There wasn’t anywhere else, even in Los Angeles,…Anything large scale, you had to go to the Bruce resort to do.”
Willa ran the place while Charles Bruce continued to work on the Pacific Union railroad. Shepard believes that he helped spread the word of the resort on his travels.
“Willa was the personality of the resort,” he said. “She was the business person who made everything work there, all the accounting, cooking, and just the overall running of the rooms, cleaning, and upkeep of the resort. So she was actually the resort itself. Charles was more of an outgoing person. Being a cook in the dining cars on the trains at that time, he made a lot of connections on his trips, bringing people to the resort, as well as on his exploits to Central Avenue, where the jazz and all that was going on. So he did a lot of the networking with the business people and the politicians and the entertainers and gangsters there and actually drummed up business for the resort.”
This was not going unnoticed by some of the white population of Manhattan Beach, including some city leaders. The History Advisory Board unearthed correspondence from 1915 between a man seeking information on a property near Bruce’s Beach and City Clerk Llewellyn Price.
“Confidentially, there is something about that block that is quite a detriment to the neighborhood, and that is that there is a colored family who live the year around on lot 8, which faces the ocean,” Price wrote. “Every so often they have a coon picnic and it is attended by about seventy-five to one hundred- and-fifty coon pullman porters and their friends. You can imagine how much this would depreciate property values in that neighborhood. It is the only colored family that lives within thecorporate limits of Manhattan. If it wasn’t for that fact, I would consider this a bargain at about the assessed valuation.”
The success of Bruce’s Beach soon attracted more African American families. In 1919, Major George and Mrs. Ethel Prioleau became the first of six more families who would purchase nearby lots over the next four years. The Prioleaus, in particular, were pillars of the Black LA community. Both were pioneers in the fight against racial segregation.
George Washington Prioleau was an American legend. He was born a slave in South Carolina in 1856, but later earned his theology degree and rose to prominence as a professor and an African Methodist Episcopol pastor in Ohio. In 1889, President Grover Cleveland appointed him chaplain of the 9th Cavalry, the all-Black regiment which served on the Western frontier. A decade later, the 9th Cavalry was relocated to the South for military activities in Cuba and the Carribean, and Prioleau emerged as an outspoken critic of the racism and segregation his troops endured. Both he and Ethel were early supporters of the NAACP; she would later help lead a successful fight to end segregation practices for nurses at LA County hospitals and in public pools in Los Angeles.
According to family records, the Bruces belonged to the First AME Church of Los Angeles, the oldest and largest Black church in LA. This is likely where they met Major Prioleau, who would later found another church in the area, Bethel AME. However they met, the Prioleaus’ arrival at Bruce’s Beach was significant. As both Bound for Freedom and Living the California Dream document, opening up the beaches of LA County was becoming one of the great civil rights fights of that time.
The beach represented the apex of a free life. And so this battlefront had an added importance.
“From the standpoint of African Americans during that time period, being able to control their destiny as relates to space and what they wanted to do with their time when they weren’t working was important when you had all of these white folks who were trying to deny you of your rights,” Jefferson said. “This was important in terms of thinking about your value as a human being, and your human dignity. And so these places were places of challenging white supremacy and contesting poor treatment.”
Up north in Santa Monica, on Memorial Day weekend in 1920, a young Black man named Arthur Valentine and his family had the temerity to picnic on a beach outside the area segregated for African Americans.
“At Santa Monica, there was sign that bluntly asserted Negro exclusion,” Flamming writes. “Maybe Arthur Valentine was tired of such signs. Maybe he believed the patriotic fervor of the day would erase the color lines, if only for that day. Maybe he just decided to take his own stand for democracy. One thing is certain: his family crossed the line in Santa Monica.”
According to Bound for Freedom, three sheriff’s deputies approached the group, carrying two loaded rifles, one loaded shotgun, one loaded revolver, and one police club, and demanded they leave. Valentine and his friend Horace Walker refused the order. Reportedly, a deputy tossed aside a small child who was part of the Valentine party, and Arthur moved to confront them. He was beaten, then shot, but not fatally, and so beaten some more.
Another element to this incident would be a harbinger of the decade to come. According to Jefferson’s research, two of the deputies had ties with the Ku Klux Klan, which had just begun spreading its message throughout the LA area.
Valentine lived to sue, successfully. A grand jury indicted the deputies. Although charges were later dropped, the case made waves throughout Black LA. Jefferson, in an essay titled “Reconstruction and Reclamation: The Erased African American Experience in Santa Monica’s History,” quotes a summation of the Valentine case in the California Eagle: “…While a satisfactory victory was not won, at least Negroes of this community served notice on that element seeking to establish a Jim Crow policy on the ocean beaches… they would fight to the last ditch to protect and preserve their citizenship rights.”
That same year, Willa Bruce bought the lot next to her existing business. Bruce’s Beach was expanding.
Next: The end of Bruce’s Beach, and a new beginning.