Officials reveal unprecedented plan to return Bruce Beach to rightful black heirs

Rosanna Xia | Los Angeles Times

In the plan, released for the first time, Los Angeles County officials detailed how they would complete the unprecedented handover of Bruce Beach to the descendants of a black couple who were expelled from Manhattan Beach nearly a century ago.

Under the proposed plan, released late Wednesday night, the waterfront property, valued at $20 million after a complex valuation, will be given to the Bruce family following an escrow process. The county would then lease the property from the Bruces for $413,000 a year and maintain the county lifeguard on the site.

“This land should not have been taken from the Bruce family over 90 years ago. We are now on the brink of redemption and justice that is long overdue,” said Holly Mitchell, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “While we cannot change the past, we must learn from it and do the right thing today. … I look forward to standing with my colleagues on the right side of history.”

County staff and a team of lawyers representing the Bruce family pro bono spent months working through the details and thinking through all possible outcomes. They received support from state legislators and indemnification advocates, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, who authorized the transfer last September and made it clear in law that the property had been illegally seized.

State and city leaders across the country have been watching exactly how the historic handover will be delivered. Many say Bruce Beach can pave the way for those seeking to come to terms with past injustices that forcibly dispossessed natives and prevented blacks, Hispanics, Japanese Americans, and more from owning property and accumulating wealth in this country.

“It was not an easy process … there was no precedent for this,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Khan, who said the legal team looked through the books and could not find a comparable case study. “We wanted it to be reliable. We wanted to transfer the property to the Bruce family in the safest possible way so that they would not inherit legal issues or any burdens.”

The proposed agreement will be put to a vote by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. If approved, the transfer would epitomize a call to action that began more than two years ago when the grassroots movement “Just for Bruce Beach” sparked a nationwide outcry and caused a reckoning on Manhattan Beach.

The history of Bruce Beach begins with the Tongva people who tended this stretch of coastline before real estate developers claimed their rights in the early 1900s and built what is today known as Manhattan Beach.

By 1912, Charles and Willa Bruce had moved to California. Villa paid $1,225 for the first of two lots along the Strand between 26th and 27th Streets and operated a popular lodge, cafe, and dance hall that provided a rare welcome to black families looking for a weekend by the sea.

Many refer to this area as Bruce’s Beach. Several more black families attracted by this new community bought and built their own cottages in the neighborhood.

But the Bruces and their guests faced growing threats from their white neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan and local real estate agents allegedly came up with ways to harass them.

When racism failed to drive this Black Beach community out of the city, city officials in 1924 condemned the area and confiscated over two dozen properties through eminent domain. The reason, they said, was the urgent need for a public park.

But for decades, the property has been empty. The two oceanfront lots that the Bruces owned were transferred to the state in 1948 and then to the county in 1995. As for the other lots, the city eventually turned them into a beautiful park overlooking the ocean.

When Khan realized that the county now owned the two lots where Bruce’s resort once stood, she took action. She called Charles and Willa Bruce’s great-great-grandson, Anthony Bruce, who is in the spotlight in 2020 after Bruce’s beach story became national history.

“I just want justice for my family,” he told Khan, explaining how this painful story had torn his family apart. Bruce, Florida’s chief security officer, said his father rarely talked about the beach that bears the family’s name. “I’m just looking for hope and mercy.”

Khan joined forces with Mitchell and State Senator Stephen Bradford (D-Gardena), who rallied state legislators and the governor to allow the transfer of public property back to private property.

Every step of this process was unexplored—and ripe for testing. A Palos Verdes Estates resident sued almost immediately after the county tried to move forward, stating, among other objections, that the transfer of property would be an unconstitutional “gift.”

When Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff heard the case in April, he dismissed it, saying that the transfer of property was not only legal, but critical to maintaining government integrity.

“The Court considers that when appropriation of public funds and/or property is intended to remove and/or eliminate racial discrimination committed by the government, it serves a public purpose,” Beckloff wrote in his ruling. “Correcting government mistakes that have been made in violation of our basic and fundamental constitutional principles contributes to strengthening the integrity of government, represents government accountability, and contributes to the elimination of structural racism and bias.”

George Fazery, a real estate lawyer who represents the Bruce family pro bono, helped the Bruces and the county get through the toughest details. They did separate genealogical research and confirmed four direct descendants: Anthony Bruce and his father, brother and uncle. (112 people went through a process to determine the rightful heir to the county to see if they were related to Charles and Willa Bruce.)

They also went through a complex appraisal process and economic analysis to determine the value of the property. Finally, they came up with a plan: once the county handed over the property, it would enter into a two-year, $413,000-a-year lease on the property and assume responsibility for all operating and maintenance costs.

The lease also includes the county’s right to purchase the land for $20 million. Both sides agreed that two years would give them a reasonable amount of time to consider this option as a possible long-term agreement.

“After all, no one has done this yet. There is no map, no textbook,” Fateri said. “From the beginning, my focus was on getting it right – both so that it can withstand any lawsuits or issues, and so that if other governments are inspired and follow the county’s lead, they get what hopefully amounts to something useful to follow.”

Khan admitted that at times the process was stressful and even more difficult than she had imagined. According to her, it seemed that the whole world was watching their every move. The county received calls from members of Congress, the state reparations task force, and city leaders from across the country.

As complex as the process has been, what happened at Bruce’s Beach may be much more obvious than other injustices that have taken place in this country. But just because something is difficult and just because something happened 100 years ago, Khan said, doesn’t mean it’s too late to try.

This is just the beginning, she said. “I hope we spend the next 100 years fixing more bugs.”

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