California moves to return land to Black couple’s heirs


MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Thursday allowing ownership of a prime beachfront property to be transferred to heirs of a couple who built a resort for Black people in the early 1900s but were stripped of the land by local officials.

The legislation unanimously approved by state lawmakers this month was necessary to allow the start of the complex legal process of transferring ownership of what was once known as Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach and has been owned by Los Angeles County.

“The journey here was far from easy,” said Kavon Ward, a Black resident who learned of the property’s history and founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach.

With a half-dozen descendants of the couple present, Newsom apologized for how the land was taken before signing the bill during a ceremony at the property. He suggested the move could be the start of broader reparations.

“This can be catalytic,” he said. “What we’re doing here today can be done and replicated anywhere else.”

FILE – This April 8, 2021 file photo, shows a monument at Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom was expected to sign legislation Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, to enable the transfer of ownership of prime Southern California beachfront property to heirs of a Black couple who built a small resort for Black people in the early 1900s but were harassed and finally stripped of the land by local city leaders. (Dean Musgrove/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who led a government push to transfer the land, said the heirs would almost certainly be millionaires now if the property had not been taken.

“The law was used to steal this property 100 years ago, and the law today will give it back,” Hahn said.

The property along the south shore of Santa Monica Bay encompasses two parcels purchased in 1912 by Willa and Charles Bruce, who built the first West Coast resort for Black people at a time when segregation barred them from many beaches. It included a lodge, cafe, dance hall and dressing tents.

White neighbors harassed the Bruces, and there was an attempt to burn down the resort. The Manhattan Beach City Council used eminent domain to take the land from the Bruces in the 1920s, purportedly for use as a park.

The land lay unused for years, however, and was transferred to the state in 1948. In 1995, it was transferred to Los Angeles County for beach operations. It came with restrictions limiting the ability to sell or transfer the property, which could only be lifted through a new state law.

The county’s lifeguard training headquarters building sits there now, along a scenic beach walkway called The Strand that is lined with luxury homes overlooking the beach. In Manhattan Beach, an upscale Los Angeles seaside suburb, the population of 35,000 is more than 84% white and 0.8% Black, the city website says.

This year, the City Council formally condemned the efforts of their early 20th century predecessors to displace the Bruces and several other Black families.

The county, meanwhile, has outlined steps needed to move forward with the transfer, including assessing the value of the parcels and trying to find a means to lessen the tax burden on the heirs.

The county also needs to vet the legal heirs of the Bruces and possibly find a new site for the lifeguard training headquarters. One option would have the heirs lease the land back to the county for continued use.

Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed to this report.

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