California Takes Steps Toward Returning Beachfront Property Taken From Black Family in 1924; Now Worth Estimated $75 Million

Nearly 100 years ago, Charles and Willa Bruce owned a popular beach resort situated along California’s scenic Manhattan Beach. But after years of harassment from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, plus strict racial segregation laws, the city decided to “reclaim” the property through eminent domain laws, paying the couple a fraction of what the land was worth. Brokenhearted at the loss of the picturesque life, the couple left the area and each passed away within five years.

CNN’s Alexandra Meeks has reported that “there’s a move afoot to provide justice to their descendants. Los Angeles County officials on Friday [April 9] said they are working with state lawmakers on legislation that would return the property — worth perhaps $75 million — to the family.”

Bruce's Beach
(Allen J Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock)

“The Bruces had their California dream stolen from them. Generations of their descendants … almost certainly would have been millionaires if they had been able to keep their property and their successful business,” said county Supervisor Janice Hahn.

According to Duane Shepard, a spokesperson for the Bruce family’s descendants, the beach property was a haven for Black families in its heyday, offering a place to enjoy sand, sun and community.

The couple reportedly purchased the land for $1,225 in 1912, and they built it up with numerous facilities, including a cafe and changing rooms, creating an incredibly popular resort.

Meeks reported that, in retaliation, “white supremacists and Klan members posted ‘no trespassing’ signs and slashed tires so Black families would avoid the area.”  

According to Meeks, after the city claimed the land, it sat dormant for several years. Today, the property includes a park, parking lot and lifeguard training facility. It also no longer belongs to Manhattan Beach after being transferred first to the state and then to Los Angeles County in 1995. Meeks also reported that while city officials have acknowledged and condemned what happened, they stopped short of an actual apology.

In a statement, the City Council said, “The Manhattan Beach of today is not the Manhattan Beach of one hundred years ago. The community and population of the City of Manhattan Beach are loving, tolerant and welcoming to all. We reject racism, hate, intolerance and exclusion. Today’s residents are not responsible for the actions of others 100 years ago.”

The process for returning the land to the Bruce family will require acceptance by the state legislature, plus a formal approval from California Gov. Gavin Newsom — all of which seems likely to happen according to policy experts.

“As Los Angeles County takes steps to position itself on the right side of history, the descendants of the Bruces are positioning themselves for a life-changing sum of money,” Meeks reported.

Although the two lots are reportedly worth $75 million, the family says money can’t ease the pain they knew Charles and Willa suffered nearly a century ago.

“After [Charles and Willa’s] family was railroaded out of town, they lived in Los Angeles destitute. Therefore, these people who did this to my family need to rectify it by any means, including apologize,” said Shepard. “I am hopeful that the people in California will see the importance of trying to right this wrong.”

Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.