California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law Thursday that returns beachfront property, known as Bruce’s Beach, to descendants of a Black couple who had the land taken away from them after they were forced out of Manhattan Beach nearly one hundred years ago.
By signing Senate Bill 796, the state confirms that the taking of the land, where the Bruces ran a successful resort for Black beachgoers, was racially motivated and done unlawfully.
“The land in the City of Manhattan Beach, which was wrongfully taken from Willa and Charles Bruce, should be returned to their living descendants,” the legislation declares, according to the Los Angeles Times “and it is in the public interest of the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Manhattan Beach, and the People of the State of California to do so.”
Activists and lawmakers in California hope that this return of land will help advance efforts on reparations for Black folks and other peoples who weren’t allowed to build generational wealth.
“This bill sets the tone for the future of reparations in California,” said State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who authored the bill and is a member of California’s recently formed reparations task force. “If you can inherit generational wealth, you can inherit generational debt. The city of Manhattan Beach owes a debt to the Bruce family. The state of California owes a debt to the Bruce family, and the county of Los Angeles owes a debt to the Bruce family — and our governor today is here to fix his signature to this bill to pay that debt to the Bruce family.”
Here is some background on how the land was stolen from the Bruces, per the Times:
The story of Bruce’s Beach begins with the Tongva, who roamed this windy stretch of coast before George Peck and others staked their claim to it in the early 1900s and developed what is known today as Manhattan Beach.
By 1912, Willa Bruce had purchased for $1,225 the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th streets. While her husband, Charles, worked as a dining-car chef on the train running between Salt Lake City and L.A., Willa ran a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall — providing Black families a way to enjoy a weekend on the coast.
Many referred to this area as Bruce’s Beach. A few more Black families, drawn to this new community, bought and built their own cottages by the sea.
But the Bruces and their guests faced years of threats and harassment from white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan purportedly set fire to a mattress under the main deck and torched a Black-owned home nearby.
When racism failed to drive the Bruce’s Beach community out of town, city officials in 1924 condemned the neighborhood and seized more than two dozen properties through eminent domain. The reason, they said, was an urgent need for a public park.
But for decades, the properties sat empty. The Bruces’ two oceanfront parcels were transferred to the state in 1948, then to the county in 1995. As for the remaining lots, city officials eventually turned them into a pretty park overlooking the sea.
Beyond the grassroots activism that kept this issue alive, the legislative process started when L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn realized that the county owned the area where the Bruce resort once stood. Hahn called the great-great-grandson of Charles and Willa Bruce and started talks with state lawmakers, county lawyers and assessors. The state Legislature and governor supported the effort to return the land.
“The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back,” Hahn said.
“My goal over the next several months will be to transfer this property in a way that not only works for the Bruce family — but is a model that other local governments can follow,” she said. “Returning Bruce’s Beach can and should set a precedent for this nation, and I know that all eyes will be on Los Angeles County as this work gets underway.”
Right now, officials are working on how to transfer the land. One idea is to transfer the land with a ground lease to L.A. County to keep up with fireground operations and pay the Bruce family rent. The county also has to assess the property’s worth, verify legal descendants, determine the terms of the lease, and other technicalities. There is also the issue of Manhattan Beach, which is still debating whether or not to issue an apology over what happened close to one hundred years ago.
Either way, Gov. Newsom said this was a great step forward.
“As governor of California, let me do what apparently Manhattan Beach is unwilling to do: I want to apologize to the Bruce family,” said Newsom, who signed the bill before dozens of cameras and handed the pen to Anthony Bruce, whose great-great-grandparents had once owned the land. “I really believe this can be catalytic,” Newsom said. “What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else. There’s an old adage: Once a mind is stretched, it never goes back to its original form.”